Homeless to Howard: A Displaced Teen's College Dream Comes True

Homeless to Howard: A Displaced Teen's College Dream Comes True
James Ward and Jessica Sutherland
Amanda Friedman

09/04/2014 AT 02:20 PM EDT

Growing up poor in Los Angeles, James Ward once lived in a shelter with his mom and two siblings for five months. But he never let go of his dream of going to a top college.

That dream finally seemed within reach in August of 2013. Accepted by multiple colleges, Ward, then 19, was getting ready to head off to his first-choice school: renowned Howard University in Washington, D.C.

Then, in a moment, everything changed when a large chunk of his student loan package was suddenly denied.

"It was devastating," Ward, now 20, tells PEOPLE. "There was no way I could attend Howard without those loans."

But his mentor, Jessica Sutherland, 35, refused to let Ward's dream slip away. Sutherland, a digital producer who grew up homeless near Cleveland, Ohio, met Ward in 2012 while volunteering at the shelter where he was staying.

"I thought, if Jessica was able to go to college," Ward says, "I could do it, too. We came from similar backgrounds. That's what really clicked for me."

Ward, then a high school junior, asked Sutherland for help.

"James stood out to me," Sutherland says. "I saw the promise and potential in him. I felt this kid could go the distance."

For the rest of the year, Sutherland coached Ward in SAT prep and essay writing and wrote him letters of recommendation. He was accepted to nine colleges, including Howard, by early 2013.

So when his dream became endangered, Sutherland swung into action.

"I thought, if he doesn't go to college now, he may never go," Sutherland says. "It was so emotional."

Launching a blog about Ward's plight and working her social media contacts, Sutherland raised $2,000 in donations in just eight hours. After the campaign went viral with help from Teach for America and celebrities like rapper Common, a total of $77,000 was raised in less than two months.

"My whole life was changed forever by total strangers," Ward says. "I saw another side of humanity."

"The beauty of Jessica and James's relationship is that her life was transformed as much as she transformed his," says the Rev. Andy Bales of the Union Rescue Mission, where the pair met.

With a portion of the money raised, Sutherland and Ward have launched the nonprofit Homeless to Higher Ed to help displaced and aged-out foster youth adapt to college.

"We want to wear our homelessness as a badge of honor to show there's no shame in asking for help," Sutherland says.

Says Ward, who's now a sophomore physics major at Howard and whose family is transitioning out of homelessness: "I want to help others in the situation that I was in, because someone out there was willing to take a chance on me."

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