Isaac Wells never knew his father, and his loving mother suffers from the debilitating affects of schizophrenia. That condition left him without a stable location to call home for periods of his youth. But Isaac graduated with honors on May 22 from Ronald Reagan High School. The Milwaukee native was also recently named a 2019 Presidential Scholar, only one of 161 in the country to be awarded the honor.

The United States Presidential Scholars program is administrated by the Department of Education, described as “one of the Nation’s highest honors for students.” The program was established in 1964 by the Executive Order of President Lyndon B. Johnson to recognize the most distinguished graduating high school seniors, for their accomplishments in areas such as academic success, leadership, and service to school and community.

A panel of 32 educators reviews student submissions each year for the national program. Student applications are by invitation only, based upon SAT/ACT scores with only 40 candidates considered in each state. Isaac will be a first-generation college student, and the only person in his family history to go on for higher education.

Isaac was selected from among America’s graduating high school senior class, to represent excellence in Wisconsin education. His story of being homeless and going on to earn top honors is rare for someone from a disadvantaged background in Milwaukee. He is enrolled in the physics program at UW-Madison next year, with a desire to reinvent the internal combustion engine.

His family existed in dire poverty for generations and lacked basic education opportunities. For a time in his childhood, he looked forward to being fed by the Milwaukee County Parks System. Being born to a schizophrenic mother within an impoverished and single-parent family led to many challenges for Isaac. He was homeless and relied on community-sponsored shelters for a place to rest.

“I clearly recall walking the streets of downtown Milwaukee as a toddler, with nowhere to call home. In reality, it was this life experience – being a homeless child walking the city streets – that taught me to work for myself,” Isaac explained in his scholarship application. “I have had so many more challenging experiences than most kids my age. As a result, I am a survivor. I have a deeply-rooted, persevering work ethic than many people lack.”

When Isaac was four years old, he moved into foster care and remained there for another four years. He considered the placement a blessing, because it taught him necessary skills that his mother was incapable of at the time. His foster family was deeply invested in his care and education.

By his sophomore year of high school, however, Isaac was relocated to a group home that was a distant 20 miles away from his school. The lengthy commute by bus added almost two hours to his day, which included athletic and other after school activities.

“To rise above these life challenges, I think about my future. What I have learned from my experiences is that, if I can be resilient now, I can build a better life in the future. This concept of ‘my future’ raises me up and drives me forward every single day,” said Isaac.

Aside from his academic achievements, Isaac is particularly proud of his contributions to the public’s well-being through his volunteer work in community service. The efforts brought him fulfillment and gave meaning to his life. Participating in the Milwaukee Public Library Teen Advisory Board (TAB), for example, improved his community service skills, built positive people connections, and developed beneficial networks throughout the city of Milwaukee.

Perhaps the most telling insight into Isaac’s character and experience can be found in his own words, with the answer for one of the scholarship application questions:

Describe a mistake you made or a challenge you faced. How did you respond to that mistake or challenge, and what did you learn from your experience?

Marquitta Yavonne Wells was born in 1976 to Marcella Yvonne Wells. She is my mother: a woman who has had the greatest significance in my life. She is a tortured soul, and is a selfless human being. She has risen above personal trauma with remarkable endurance to give me wisdom and strength – traits that I bear to this day.

My mother has suffered more than any person should. She was born in poverty, faced abuse, and suffered neglect. She not only battled endless financial struggles, but she wrestled within her own mind as well. Marquitta suffers from major depression and severe paranoid schizophrenia. Amidst all of this, she birthed beautifully-minded twins, forming a lifelong bond and a legacy of resilience. My brother and I will be the first members of our family to rise above poverty and attend a postsecondary institution.

When my brother and I were very young, our mother went door-to-door in suburban neighborhoods, seeking help and a proper home for us. One can only imagine how she felt, being forced to swallow her pride and give up her own children because she knew that she could not care for us. It took four years for her to gain the help needed to place us into foster care. Eventually, she found enough stability in her life to regain our custody. Sadly, she could not maintain that life stability for long.

Shortly before Christmas break in 2015, I walked with my mom through our neighborhood park. She seemed more frantic than usual, alarmingly cautious of everything around us. She was always a protective lady, but this day I what looked like sheer saw terror in her eyes. I looked around, but there was nothing frightening around us. That night, while reading the bible together, she suddenly froze, pointing at the wall, asking of a shadow lying in the corner. Nothing was there. Although this was incredibly bizarre, we continued to read and eventually we all went to sleep. That night I noticed that my mother had stayed up much later than she usually does. A few days later, she picked my brother and I up from school. When we got in the car, she tearfully told us that we might have to go back into foster care because she was seeing and hearing voices. Her paranoid schizophrenia had risen up once again.

Within a two month spurt of erratic behavior, my mother lost our car, become a smoker, an alcoholic, and used all of our money. When we received an eviction notice, I realized that as hard as it would be to leave my mother, it was time to get help. It broke my heart, but I spoke with my school social worker to see what I could do, but there wasn’t much to be done at the time. Child Protective Service rejected our requests for placement in a foster home until my mother got into a physical argument with my brother. Over the span of a few days, CPS agents moved us into a group home. I can’t begin to imagine her heart-wrenching pain. Not only had she once again lost her sons; she also lost her only source of friendship, compassion, and family.

That happened three years ago. Before I head off to college, I would like to have one last visit with my mother. I hunger to see her beautiful smile. I need to hear her guttural laugh, her raspy voice, and her enchanting singing. I want to hold her plump warm hands, share a family joke, recall a tender memory, or rest my head against her pillowy body like I did as a child. I want to reminisce about days when we would eat carelessly, watch silly shows like Family Guy or Marvin, The Tap Dancing Horse. I remember the smell of her cherry blossom perfume. It had a cheap smell that lightly punched your nose with the fragrance of artificial flowers, and would combine with the earthy smells of sweat, and summer’s musk — the pungent aromas of mankind.

I love my mother, yet I fear seeing her. Being separated from each other for this long, I feel that we’ve lost a crucial link: our emotional connection. The last time I saw my mother was in July of 2016. My brother and I had scheduled weekly visits with her so that we could grow this already diminishing connection. Unfortunately, the visits did not go well. At first, she locked us out of the apartment, unaware of who we were within her lost schizophrenic mind. To her, we were demons trying to invade her home, and eventually her mind. Sometimes, she simply did not show up, leaving us outside for hours, waiting for her return like pets awaiting their errant owners. What broke our hearts was to see that the one day our mother let us in the house, she had thrown away everything from her apartment: no couch, beds, or television. Unemployed, she had little food and suffered the effects of starvation. She lost 80 pounds and was malnourished. Lacking insulin in a diabetic body, her lips darkened, her hair fell out, and her vision blurred. I saw my mother on the verge of death.

There are so many appalling events that my mother has endured, yet she never forgets her sons. With no apartment furnishings, she created makeshift beds for us: a thin sheet and pillow lying on the hard floor. She cleaned our rooms daily, laying whatever food she could find on our “beds.” She found clothes in the streets, laundered them, and left them neatly folded as gifts to us to find when we would visit. In her mind, we still lived there. Every visit she would ask us why we hadn’t been home. She would leave her door unlocked, unable to handle being there with us. I believe that guilt, fear, uncertainty, and a sense of failure drove her from us. Yet she had unknowingly given my brother and I so very much by releasing us to foster care. In her absence, we gained inner strength and fortitude; traits so few others have.

Yes, my mother is my hero. She has struggled more than anyone I know and still has a remarkable selflessness; an enduring love that is unmatched by any human. Marquitta Wells is undoubtedly the most significant person in my life.

A creative work that illustrates his worldview is “Satisfy My Soul,” a song by Bob Marley and the Wailers. The bittersweet piece resonates with his own life experiences.

“I say bittersweet because, although I have experienced bleak struggles, I still remain happy,” added Isaac. “The song represents the joy I find in life. And the title summarizes my state of mind: I know where I am headed in life with growing satisfaction in my soul.”

Milwaukee Public Schools

Milwaukee Public Schools