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Sean Kirst: Foster kid borrows Carmelo Anthony's name for one astounding life

Dear Carmelo Anthony,

I know this is a crazy time of the year for you. Spring is coming, and you and your Oklahoma City Thunder teammates are fighting to make the playoffs. Life in the National Basketball Association, I have no doubt, is all-consuming.

Still, as someone who remembers what it's like to grow up in a hard place, there's a young man in Buffalo whose tale you might appreciate.

It involves a child, once abandoned, who chose to take your name.

Wednesday, at the annual dinner for the Mental Health Association of Erie County, Anthony Donalson will receive a "Courage to Come Back Award," which really summarizes his life story. He's working for the association as a youth peer mentor, but none of that does justice to his journey.

He went into the foster care system before his earliest memory. He never met his biological father. His birth mother died about seven years ago. He was told recently that one of the reasons he was removed from his home as a little boy was because he broke his leg, a revelation offered when a biological sister he had never met contacted him on Facebook, while he was traveling with some colleagues to a conference.

She opened a window into a world he barely knows. Anthony rolled with it, as he tries to roll with everything. He remembers bouncing from foster home to foster home. He remembers coming home from school to find all his things stuffed in plastic garbage bags by the door, which meant he was on his way to someplace else.

He carried around an anger and sadness he could never exactly identify, emotions that caused him to erupt over little slights in class, explosions that sent him on a journey through many schools. One of the things that used to upset him was getting teased about his birth name, Kwasi.

Now, he's got it figured out. He understands his fury was locked into the nature of his loss, the untouchable hurt about the way the people who named him vanished from his life. Still, when other kids called him "Kwasi-modo," he was ready to start swinging. It reached a point, maybe 14 years ago, when the adults who counseled him gave him a choice.

If you could pick a new first name, what would it be?

Carmelo, he chose "Anthony" because he admired you. Years later, when he had a child of his own, he and Towanna Verse would give the same name - your name - to their own son.

Anthony Donalson: A life of success despite overwhelming odds. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

In that sense, he became your namesake, and I thought you might appreciate what Ken Houseknecht, executive director of the mental health association, says about him now:

"We're trying to figure out how to get an army of Anthonys. He's living hope, a symbol, in a way none of us can be."

That arc defies grim probability. Anthony ended up at Buffalo's Stanley G. Falk School, which serves children who struggle in traditional classrooms. He became what Lori Hammond – the principal then, an assistant superintendent now – describes as "one in a million." He scored more than 1,000 points in basketball, and his framed jersey hangs on a wall, but that doesn't define what makes him so important.

As a guy who appreciates statistics, Carmelo, how about this one:

Only 3 percent of American foster children earn college degrees.

This kid, who named himself for you, did it at Hilbert College.

Now, at 27, he understands what turned it around. As a child, he finally landed in the foster home of Edith Donalson, a widow, and her son, Earnest Jr. Edith quickly moved to adopt him. Even so, for a long time, Anthony said he pushed away that affection. He was angry at a loss he couldn't describe, and it led him to the embrace of friends on the street.

Anthony knows what it's like to be a child walking home from school, and to have five or six older guys, out of nowhere, beat you bloody. Yet he appreciates why hurting children can be drawn to life on the corner, where the daily welcome of friends living on the edge – the youthful connection strengthened by shared risk – can numb the sense of feeling alone in the world.

Anthony Donalson, as a basketball standout at the Falk School. (Image courtesy of Principal Lisa Dombek)

One night, a party in Niagara Falls flipped out of control. Bullets flew, and the teenage Anthony was shot in the arm. His adoptive mother and upset brother met him at the hospital, showing up in a way so many people never did. It would be a lie to say that moment changed everything – the process was longer, and more complex – but Anthony gradually came to a realization.

Edith, his adoptive mother, cared about him, even counted on him. So did his teammates on the basketball team. So did Lori Hammond and so many teachers and coaches and counselors at Falk. So did his adopted brother Earnest, a mental health counselor who never lost faith in the kid.

If those people all believed his life had value, maybe he could risk believing it himself.

"I'm proud of him," Earnest said, "and the way that he works through it."

After Hilbert, Anthony became a manager at a Chipotle restaurant, learning simple lessons about day-to-day work. On his own time, because he liked the back-and-forth, he would go to Falk and speak with the students there. Principal Lisa Dombek said the children responded because Anthony was a school legend, as well as a graduate of "stellar character."

It was Hammond, a mentor since childhood, who told him the mental health association had received a grant from the Tower Foundation. The organization intended to hire driven young people who had truly "lived the life," as Hammond puts it, as a way of supporting teens trying to overcome depression and substance abuse.

Anthony called Jenny Laney, director of the child and family support program. She felt as if fate had brought her the ideal candidate. Other opportunities – such as the "Just Tell One" campaign to change the stigma surrounding mental illness – quickly opened up.

"He understands," Laney said, "because he sees."

Anthony Donalson, graduation day, the Falk School. (Image courtesy Principal Lisa Dombek)

That part-time position led to full-time work with the association. When he speaks to youth groups, Anthony often shares his regret about the years when he gave his foster mother and brother a hard time, all those times – as a child – when he would shout at Edith that she wasn't his "real mother," because he is now reaching a man's understanding.

With a young son of his own, he does his best to share this lesson: Family is not always about biology. Family can be defined most powerfully by those who stick around when others go missing. Anthony, so aware of countless boys and girls who have endured abandonment, came to a revelation.

In their loss, in their pain, those children are his kin.

Anyway, Carmelo, I just thought you would want to know. You're already one of the leading scorers in NBA history, and someday they'll put you in the Hall of Fame, and I hope you reach every accomplishment you dream about.

Still, you could score a million points and it wouldn't matter quite like this.

Stripped of everything, this kid in Buffalo took your name, then built a life.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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