Through homelessness, the death of his mother and numerous other hardships endured on his way to becoming class valedictorian, Florida high school student Griffin Furlong always clung to one belief.
“Just never give up,” Furlong, who has long had that motto written on the bill of his baseball cap, told TODAY.com. “Never let anyone tell you that you can’t do something, because I’ve been told that all my life. People would tell me I wasn’t smart enough, and now I’m here at the top of my class.”
Furlong, 18, will give the speech to his fellow seniors on graduation day for First Coast High School in Jacksonville on June 4, after finishing with a 4.65 grade-point average.
Family hardships have resulted in Furlong living in homeless shelters for varying stints since he was 7 years old, including staying in one for a period last month before he moved in with his girlfriend’s family, and then with his aunt and uncle. When he was six years old, his mother died from leukemia, and he said he also endured periods of his life where his family was starving and barely able to survive.
“I had to grow up really fast,” he said. “I’ve seen things that kids wouldn’t ever see in their lives. I would be starving at night, and I’ve seen my dad physically abused in front of me. I don’t take anything for granted any more.”
Very few of Furlong’s friends and teachers knew about his situation outside of school, but achieving the honor of valedictorian has let more people know about what he has overcome.
“It’s definitely taken a little weight off my shoulders,” he said. “I don’t just walk up to people and say, ‘Hey, I’m homeless.’ It’s a hard thing to do. Only a few of my best friends know everything that has ever happened.”
He can still remember the day as a 7-year-old when he walked five miles with his father and older brother, Sean, to stay in a Louisville homeless shelter.