It would not be hard to believe if Tyree Johnson had trouble figuring out his career aspirations, given the uncertainty he faced growing up.
The 17-year-old student at New Roads School in Santa Monica and his older sister did not always have a stable living environment as children. With their mother battling a drug addiction, they were placed into foster care and were not always in the same home or living with the same people.
The experience forced Johnson and his sister to become accustomed to different living situations and schools and learn to cope with change at a young age, he says.
“The most difficult thing was not really having stability,” Johnson said of his childhood. “But it’s been beneficial because I have learned to adjust. I’m really good with change.”
Johnson has lived with three foster families in different parts of the Los Angeles area, most recently in Redondo Beach, an upbringing that could cause a teenager to be indecisive about the future. But not this young man; he has a pretty good idea of the path he’d like to take.
Though still a senior at New Roads college preparatory school, Johnson is eager for college to pursue a major in international business and ultimately a career in fashion. He says it was at New Roads where he first developed his career ambitions and acknowledges that he’s been lucky to attend the private school.
“I was really provoked and encouraged by people in school. I think this is where it started,” he said.
Johnson transferred from an inner-city public school to New Roads with help from the New Visions Foundation’s Center for Educational Opportunity (CEO) program, which matches foster youths with appropriate independent schools and maintains ongoing educational and social support. The CEO program helped Johnson enroll as a freshman and has helped pay for his books, tutoring and summer school.
“We have a very personalized, one-on-one relationship with each student throughout their education,” said Deanne Shartin, director of CEO.
Shartin said she believed that New Roads was a good match for Johnson and noted that even though the school necessitated that he make a long commute, he was willing to do it. While making a lengthy commute to school can be “arduous” and it took some time to get used to a new school, Johnson said he has grown to love New Roads.
“It was very difficult adjusting in the beginning and it was like walking into a new world, but I’m absolutely in love with it now,” he said.
With Johnson’s success during his time at New Roads and volunteer work in the community, Shartin said she encouraged Johnson to vie for the Children’s Defense Fund “Beat the Odds” scholarship, which awards $10,000 for education for youths overcoming tremendous obstacles. The Children’s Defense Fund recognized his progress as a young student, selecting him as the only foster youth for the award this year, something that did not surprise Shartin.
“I think they chose well to honor him because he’s one of the kids out there who has beat the odds and he’s done it through his own hard work,” she said. “He’s made such progress academically, he does work in the community and his overall attitude is one of perseverance and optimism.”
Johnson said the term “beating the odds” can be interpreted differently by different people but he was thrilled to receive an award for such an achievement. By earning the scholarship, Johnson had a film biography of himself created for the December 3rd awards gala by director J.J. Abrams of such films as “Mission: Impossible III” and “Star Trek.” Abrams called Johnson’s recognition, “completely deserved.”
“Tyree is the embodiment of free will; he is creating his own path,” Abrams said at the awards ceremony in Beverly Hills attended by other celebrities.
Johnson said he has found inspiration from public figures in the fashion industry to make something of himself. One such figure is designer Diane Von Furstenberg, whom Johnson admires as a person and for her success. Abrams gave Johnson a letter from the designer at the ceremony congratulating him and mentioning an internship.
“I read it every single day,” he said of the letter.
In addition to planning for college, Johnson has been busy volunteering at the OPCC access center in Santa Monica, where he has helped sort mail, delivered donated clothes to clients, worked in the kitchen and assisted case managers. Working with homeless people in the community has “allowed me to appreciate what I have,” he said.
Gina Frazier, volunteer coordinator at the access center, said Johnson has been a very helpful volunteer who works well with staff and she praised his recent honor.
“It’s great to see that he’s overcome a lot of the odds and we wish him all the best,” she said.
While he has overcome struggles to reach his achievements as a New Roads student, Johnson knows that the hard work is not done and he is now focused on the next phase — college. He has applied to a number of schools on the East Coast, where the fashion industry is thriving, and he plans to begin the career path with internships. In addition to the opportunity with Von Furstenberg, he has an internship offer from GQ in New York.
Johnson tells other youngsters who may be facing similar challenging upbringings to have resilience and not give up on their goals.
“You need to know what you want and know who you are,” he said. “There’s always a way no matter what.”