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Viral story leads to $1million donations for underdog debate team coach

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It wasn’t until Jonathan Conyers became an adult that he realized how much his debate coach had helped him as a struggling high school student with two drug-addicted parents. And also how his trainer, KM DiColandrea, must have silently struggled with his own issues.

So when Conyers, now 27, recently submitted a story about his life to Humans of New York, a blog with 20 million social media followers that tells the stories of everyday New Yorkers, the founder Brandon Stanton wanted Conyers to tell his own story, he said. .

“I said, ‘You know what? I think I prefer to honor my teacher. How about DiCo? Conyers said in an interview with The Washington Post, using his coach’s nickname.

And so it was that last week, millions latched onto Conyers’ every word as his story unfolded on Instagram – and then donations of over $1.2 million started pouring in for DiColandrea funds his debate club.

“It’s been overwhelming in the best way possible, but it’s way more important than me or Jonathan,” said DiColandrea, who had just spent his life savings – $6,000 – to fund the team.

DiColandrea and Conyers first met in 2009 when Conyers was 14. Conyers had just broken into a house and avoided charges when he was admitted to Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem, “known as the school you wanted to go to if you were a black boy,” said Conyers at Humans of New York.

The principal sat him down and told him to find an extracurricular activity. Conyers, then a freshman, wandered into the debate room.

“The coach was this little white lady named Ms. DiColandrea, but everyone called her Ms. DiCo,” Conyers, 27, told The Post.

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He finally learned that DiColandrea was transitioning from female to male. Everyone in the debate club was supportive, Conyers said.

“She looked like a kid, but I was struck by her power when she spoke,” he said. “That first day, I sat in the back of the room to listen, and then I kept coming back every day.”

Conyers thrived in the club, a scrappy underdog group that often competed with private schools and other privileged students. Much of his success was due to DiColandrea, Conyers said in the Humans of New York post:

“If she ever saw that my clothes were wrinkled, she would offer to wash them. And when I had no money, she covered my tournament fees. Ms. DiCo knew the house was hell for many of us, so some nights she stayed until 8:30 p.m. She taught us to concentrate and study. … At night, I would come home and stand in front of the mirror with pencils in my mouth – just to practice my articulation.

In the post, Conyers detailed a debating tournament they participated in at Harvard:

“Everyone was watching us. It’s not everyday you see a transgender teacher with all those big… black kids. And it was very obvious that we were poor. Everyone else wore pressed dress shirts and khakis. We have white t-shirts and sandals.

Conyers didn’t win, and his coach thought it was unfair and angrily challenged the judges, and then Conyers, he recalled.

“He was like, ‘Why aren’t you more angry? You worked so hard for this. And I’m like, ‘I don’t know, DiCo. It’s a normal life for me. And he’s like, ‘Well, you better start caring more. Or this is gonna be your life forever. ”

When Conyers graduated, he received a scholarship to attend the State University of New York at Stony Brook to major in respiratory therapy.

He now works as a respiratory therapist in the neonatal intensive care unit at NYU Langone Medical Center in Manhattan. DiColandrea, 37, now teaches American history at Stuyvesant High School in New York.

The two have remained close, and Conyers is a board member of DiColandrea’s Brooklyn Debate League. The program offers free debate training and access to tournaments for teens who might not otherwise be able to afford to participate.

When Conyers recently learned that DiColandrea drained his $6,000 savings account to maintain his debate league, he wanted to help.

He sat down and told a dozen moving stories about his own past struggles, and how whenever he felt down, it was DiColandrea he turned to.

After Conyers’ stories were published by Humans of New York, Stanton quickly created a GoFundMe page to help DiColandrea recoup the $6,000 he had spent keeping the Brooklyn Debate League afloat.

In the GoFundMe, DiColandrea wrote about why he created the program.

“The community is dominated by private schools, parochial schools and wealthy kids. BDL is a safe space for all children: gay and trans children, children of color, children of all income brackets, children who are national champions, and children who have no experience in speech and debate. Whatever their story, we are here to help them tell it,” he wrote.

Conyers said the overwhelming response left him speechless.

“It’s a dream to be able to honor DiCo in this way and let the world know that people like him exist,” he said.

DiColandrea said he was also amazed and planned to use the funds to involve more children.

“The past few years have been the most challenging for teachers around the world,” DiColandrea said. “We asked them to intervene in an impossible way. Millions of teachers are quietly making an impact like I did with Jonathan, so I hope our story will remind people of that.

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He said he always believed that the quiet freshman who sat at the back of his class would one day do good things with his life. Conyers is now married and has three children with his high school sweetheart. DiColandrea is godfather to his 9-year-old daughter, Emily.

“Jonathan was the kindest, smartest, hardest-working kid,” he recalls. “He came to every training session, to every tournament. But I had no idea at the time that I had such an impact.

DiColandrea said he quietly deals with a lot in his own life as a transgender teacher.

Conyers said he now wishes he had offered more support.

“I feel bad that I never asked, ‘How are you? How was your day?’ said Conyers.

“I never sat down and wondered what it was like to be DiCo,” he told Humans of New York.

DiColandrea said he was deeply moved when he read Conyers’ stories. DiColandrea had also found solace in a debate club when he was in high school a few blocks from the World Trade Center and felt traumatized after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“Children today are also going through something traumatic with the covid pandemic,” DiColandrea said. “In the spring of 2020, there were 60 to 70 ambulance sirens a day as children were stuck at home, removed from their support groups.”

Giving teens a space to talk about the burdens in their lives is what got him into the workout debate to begin with, he said.

This did not escape Conyers.

“I hope I made him proud,” Conyers said.

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