By ERIN SNELGROVE
ELLENSBURG -- At school, Jaylund Smith was the class clown, the guy who loved music and was surrounded by friends. But at home, he was the counselor, the person his mom turned to when she feuded with her husband.
"In a way, I felt like I was looking after my mom and I had to step away from the kid thing," said 21-year-old Smith of Tacoma. "I had to be with her."
As his family disintegrated, Smith attended three high schools in four years and stopped caring about grades. He barely graduated, began experimenting with alcohol and pot and took on several jobs to support himself.
Normally, his high school grades would have been too dismal to be accepted at a college, but his application to Central Washington University was routed to the school's STAR program, which gives high-risk students who exhibit academic promise a second chance.
As a result, he's now well into his junior year.
"Jay is a very talented young man and incredibly insightful," said Carolyn Thurston, director of the program. "There is a lot of potential."
Looking back, Smith said an early sign of trouble came when he was a junior in high school. His mother, who already had three kids of her own, relinquished custody of her 3-year-old foster son, Keaon, who had been with the family for two years.
Everyone had bonded with Keaon, but Smith said his mother didn't want the responsibility of raising another child. Smith accepted her decision, but letting go was emotional.
After that, the changes came quickly. He said his stepfather and mother began getting into frequent, heated arguments. The couple began talking about divorce.
"It was like a scene from a movie," Smith said. "I felt it was a joke. I didn't want to believe it, but that didn't change the realness of it."
His parents separated and reconciled. The family moved to make a fresh start. But their problems followed.
"Twelfth grade was the worst year. I had no school spirit at all," Smith said. "Things took a toll on me. I didn't care about football games or pep rallies. This wasn't my school."
Smith began drinking and smoking pot.
"Before any of this, I lived in a super-Christian household," he said. "We went to church three times a week. We prayed before meals and before we'd go off to school. I didn't expect this to happen."
After graduating in 2006, Smith worked at the Port of Seattle and a retirement home. At the latter, senior citizens told him he was a smart guy who belonged in school. Smith heeded the advice, took his SATs and applied to Central.
Based in part on his high SAT scores, he was accepted -- contingent on him joining the STAR program.
"I was iffy," Smith said about his conditional acceptance. "I didn't know exactly what STAR entailed. I was all excited, but I had doubts at the same time."
Through STAR, Smith attended a mandatory class on the ins and outs of university life -- from effective study methods to time management. Smith got help from tutors, and he had to check in with Thurston about how he was doing.
But despite the help, he had a rough start. He partied a bit too much his freshman year, and his grades suffered.
He's gotten extra guidance to learn how to stay on task.
"My mindset started to change to be more responsible," said Smith. "I learned how to work, how to be more continuous."
Thurston is proud that Smith has overcome so many barriers, but she still worries. Both she and Smith suspect he suffers from Attention Deficit Disorder, but he has yet to take her advice about getting tested. If he was officially diagnosed, he could access additional services, she said.
He still needs to create an organizational system for himself, be it through a datebook or a PalmPilot, and Thurston said he has difficulty keeping in touch with people who can help him -- including herself.
"He gets very excited, then he gets distracted. He can go a long way on his own wits and street smarts; however, he's riding the fence all of the time. That's typical for students with ADD," she said. "He's trying the same things over and over again. He needs some direction, I think."
The STAR program is set up specifically to help with such problems.
Smith said he's grateful for people like Thurston, who go out of their way to keep him motivated and focussed. He knows he can be stubborn, but he's finding his way.
He still needs to select a major and figure out what he must do to get ahead, he said. He most enjoys singing and rapping, but knows that side of him is for himself. What matters most is finding a job he enjoys with good earning potential.
"I want to be successful and make good money," he said. "I want to give my kids what I didn't have. I want to be an example."