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Little Flower students going to Washington for inauguration

They're not sure how close they'll get to the U.S. Capitol or what they'll be able to see.

Early Monday, 17 students from the Little Flower school district and residential treatment center will board a bus from their Wading River campus and drive to a Holiday Inn in Harrisburg, Pa. On Tuesday at 4 a.m., they'll ride the bus toward Washington, D.C., to get as close as possible to the inauguration of the country's first black president.

"We were unable to get tickets," said George Grigg, superintendent of the school district of 110 special education students. Most are in the foster care system and have learning disabilities or emotional disorders. Because many of them are in foster care, their last names were withheld.

Many overcame enough life struggles that not having tickets to the ceremony won't stop them from being part of the celebration, Grigg said, "no matter how close we get or how far away we are."

Some have never been to Washington before. Some have never left New York.

The bus is expected to take the students and their eight chaperones six blocks from the National Mall, but traffic and the millions of people expected to be in the area might make that impossible, said teacher Josephine Bailey, who organized the trip.

Bailey started contacting tour operators about bringing the students to Washington soon after the election. Barack Obama infused so much hope and excitement throughout the school that Grigg and Bailey were determined to bring some students to the inauguration.

They selected students based on essays they wrote and chose chaperones by picking names out of a hat, Grigg said.

"He has shown me that it doesn't matter how hard your life may have been, you can still overcome the hardships and do anything you put your mind to," wrote Daniel, 17, who's going on the trip. "If I could be in his presence, merely once in my life, it would fill me with glee."

The school contacted local politicians about getting tickets. "We knew it would be next to impossible," Bailey said.

On Friday, the selected students gathered in the school's library, talking about what the trip means to them.

"When I was 10 or 9, I wasn't into politics, and now I'm going to a history-making event," said Fatima, 11. "When I get older, I can say I was there when Barack Obama got inaugurated. I've never been able to participate in something so important."

Some of them said they're excited about staying overnight in a hotel, dressing up for a dance and eating a buffet dinner. But for others, the trip is a chance to show the public that Little Flower kids aren't troublemakers.

"I'm a loud child, so I'll have to lower it down," said Elltema, 14.

"If we can show people that we can go out of state and we can see history being made and we behave ourselves, then maybe we can change how people think of Little Flower," said A'lia, 15.

Their Stories

KENYOTTA, 16: During the long journey to Washington, D.C., she said she'll be reflecting on the mother she hasn't seen since she was a child. Her mother gave her up to foster care parents six days before Kenyotta's first birthday to protect her from an abusive stepfather. "He was abusing her so she wanted me to be safe," Kenyotta said. Before coming to live at Little Flower three years ago, Kenyotta went through 18 foster homes, she said. Barack Obama and Little Flower helped her change a bad attitude. "I thought if Barack Obama can be the first African-American president, why can't I be what I want to be?" she said as tears streamed down her face. "He inspired me to care more."

DANIEL, 17: "When I was young, I liked school, but as I went up in grades, I started getting into fights," he recalled. He was suspended from a Riverhead school because "I was swinging at the teachers." His father's death when Daniel was 13 added to his rage. He arrived at Little Flower a year later and has since found it helpful to talk about his feelings. "I'm just excited," he said in a whisper about the trip. "I can't even describe it."

TONEY, 16: "I was basically a menace growing up in Mastic. I got kicked out of school in second grade" for fighting and bad grades, he said. "It hurt me to see my father dying and my mom didn't care." Toney said his father died of AIDS when he was 11, and he has been at Little Flower for seven years. "It ain't nothing to brag about, but I stopped selling and using drugs and I stopped fighting," he said.

JOSE, 17: He said he can still remember being 3 years old when his drunken father pushed his mother, who fell on him. Whenever Jose and his mother moved, his father would find them, he said. Jose recalled celebrating his fourth birthday in a Brooklyn hospital and then going to live with several abusive foster parents before going to Little Flower when he was 13. "It's not behind me," he said of his past.

FATIMA, 11: Despite her youth, she spoke with raw maturity about years of physical abuse at the hands of a foster mother's teenage daughter and son in the Bronx. The daughter cut off Fatima's hair and "it took me like five years to grow it back." When the daughter sat Fatima's naked body on a hot stove in 2007, she could no longer hide the abuse from school officials. From then, she lived in four other foster homes before she arrived at Little Flower last August.


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