It’s 9:30 a.m. on a Wednesday, just before the start of spring break, and students are impatiently counting down the hours until their week of freedom.
Some students are also anticipating graduation, but they have to get their schedules in line, which means that they have to pay a visit to the counselor’s office.
“Tell me about home,” Aniece Vinson, the lead counselor at Frederick Douglass High School, asks a student who was returning to school after a very long hiatus. “Do you have support?”
“Yeah,” says the student. Sitting diagonally across from her, he explains that he left school a few years ago because it got in the way of work, but he now realizes that in order to fulfill his goal of becoming a “successful black man” he’s going to need his education.
Vinson praises him for making the decision to come back to school and hands him a clipboard containing a student information sheet. He writes for a few seconds and hands the clipboard back to her with half of the spaces left blank.
Vinson immediately urges him to fill out the rest of the information, which includes his current address and phone number. He looks up at her curiously.
“Sometimes I have to rescue my students,” she says. Over the past 25 years, in fact, she’s taken about 15 students into her home.
Born in Whitakers, North Carolina, the youngest of 12 children, Vinson always knew that she wanted to help kids.
“I always liked the underdog,” says Vinson. “The one that people thought just wouldn’t succeed.”
Even as a child, she was solving other people’s problems. She says that her father used to joke around with her by saying that she should just get a big house and move all the kids in it.
By 1972, Vinson had graduated from high school and earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology and social welfare at Saint Augustine’s University in Raleigh, North Carolina. But after trying her hand at a few administrative jobs, she realized that working in that field wasn’t for her, so she decided to change direction.
“I was so intrigued with the art of people and the minds of people through psychology,” Vinson says, “that I said, ‘the best thing for me to do would be to get a counseling degree.’”
She received her master’s degree in counseling from North Carolina Central University in 1973, and by 1978 she’d started a new job at what used to be Southern High School in Baltimore City.
She got laid off and was still having money problems when she started her next job at Dunbar Middle School. She could barely afford food, but every day Ms. Williams, a colleague who managed the cafeteria, would save her a plate of food. This compassion inspired Vinson to help others.
Soon, she came across a child who she felt needed her assistance. He was a fifth-grader whose unkempt appearance made him a target for bullies. After talking to the boy’s mother, Vinson found out that she didn’t have the means to provide for him, so she used her own money to take him shopping. She then brought him to her house so that she could bathe and feed him. Satisfied with his appearance, she took him home.
The next day, he came back to school in the same state he had been in before.
“It was kind of devastating because I had not seen that before,” says Vinson. “I was thinking that maybe his clothes would’ve stayed clean at least one day, but they didn’t.”
After speaking to his mother for the second time, Vinson took him shopping once again. Eventually the boy stopped coming to school, and after driving by his home Vinson found out that his family had moved away.
Then, she helped a young lady named Natasha who was a 17-year-old employee at Dunbar Middle School.
Natasha was having troubles of her own, but like many teens, she hid them and made sure to excel at her job.
“She was good at what she did,” says Vinson. “And that was to get kids motivated. She was an excellent motivator, but she didn’t know how to motivate herself.”
One day, Natasha asked Vinson if she could come home with her. Vinson was surprised, but when Natasha explained that she just wanted to hang out, Vinson agreed.
After talking with Natasha’s parents, drawing up a letter of intent, and getting her son’s approval, Vinson brought Natasha in to live with her and her son for about two years.
Natasha, who is now married and in college, calls regularly and also has a solid relationship with her biological family.
In preparation for her retirement, Vinson registered with foster care because she likes having kids around.
“Kids just give me a lease on life,” she says. “You know, they keep you going, they keep you creative, they make you do things you wouldn’t otherwise do.”
She loves helping teens, and when her teens call to give her updates, she feels proud. She feels like she has done her part.
“Do for you,” Vinson says she said to one of her kids when he asked what she wanted in return for her help. “I’m going to receive the reward just by knowing that you are where you’re supposed to be.”