When Thom Washington walks into Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School every Friday, he asks his students one question: “Why are we here?” With all of the excitement of a ten-year-old on a Friday afternoon, they reply, “Because you love us!”
But these kids aren’t just excited because school’s out for the weekend; they’re excited to learn from a group of men and women they consider their older brothers and sisters.
In 2014, Washington started a nonprofit in his hometown of Los Angeles called Engage The Vision, with the goal of providing students in low income neighborhoods with mentorship. Many of these kids come from broken homes, and don’t have adults who look like them to look up to as examples of who they could become in the future.
“You’re seeing young kids in the inner city kind of falling into some of the pitfalls: gang violence, drugs, the correctional system,” Washington explained to AfterBuzz TV. “I grew up in South Central Los Angeles, and then when I was a teenager my family moved to Inglewood, but it was the same issues.”
Engage The Vision was born out of a career day Washington held with other volunteers at the school. With an overflow of volunteers, he said one hour wasn’t enough with the kids, so the school principal invited them to keep coming back.
credit: Engage The Vision
The organization was originally for male students who may be missing a father figure at home, whom they lovingly refer to as “Young Kings,” but recently expanded to include “Young Queens,” too. Every week, the mentors help the students with homework, practice skills like meditation and bring in successful speakers to show them that they can be anything they want to be when they grow up.
“We provided an opportunity to engage whatever their vision is for their future and to show them how to get there,” Washington said. “It became a door to all kinds of professionals that had worked in the entertainment industry or worked in science and engineering, and we all came together for these kids every Friday. And it just took on a life of its own.”
A deep love for people is at the center of Washington’s life. When he’s not working with his nonprofit on Fridays, he’s spending Tuesdays feeding the homeless on Skid Row. Every Sunday you can find him pastoring his church, the Christian’s Community Center of Los Angeles, where he’s served as the senior pastor for the past ten years.
The past decade hasn’t been easy for Washington in any sense of the word, but you wouldn’t know it unless you lived with him, like his wife Stephanie, daughter Kennedi and sister-in-law Terri do. While he loves to help others, Washington has never been one to ask for help–even when he needed it most.
credit: Engage the Vision
“In August 2018, I basically collapsed in a convenience store. We were getting ready for a picnic and I didn’t really know anything was wrong with me, but then I was rushed to the hospital,” Washington recalled. “One day I’m fine, and the next day I’m being told that I have stage four cancer and there’s nothing that they could do.”
Unbeknownst to Washington during his busy schedule, he had developed a tumor the size of a grapefruit in his colon.
“After the first surgery, basically they sewed me back up and said that they couldn’t do anything,” he said. “Our church, we prayed and we were looking for a miracle because medically, there was nothing that could possibly be done.”
As a man of faith, Washington was no stranger to miracles. His sister-in-law had gone through cancer twice, and he had witnessed her tumor disappear against all medical odds.
Washington’s miracle did come. In February 2019, his tumor disappeared without explanation. His doctors spent two months running additional tests, but the tumor in his colon along with all sides of spreading had vanished.
Maybe miracles run in the family, or maybe Washington had more work left to do serving his community, but he was healed. And his good fortune was still unfolding.
Not being one to ask for help, Washington’s colleagues only found out about his diagnosis because he didn’t show up to work–not that that stopped him from working, as he was still sending emails and keeping up on his laptop from his hospital bed.
Right around the time Washington found out his cancer was gone, producers from HGTV’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition reached out to his family. Some of his coworkers from Engage The Vision had nominated him.
“They were aware that we have been working in the community and you know, we didn’t have a lot of finances, so they just wanted to do something nice,” he said. “They figured, ‘Wherever they’re living, they can spruce it up,’ but they didn’t know about the situation of this house.”
The state of their house was yet another struggle plaguing the Washingtons over the past ten years. Originally owned by Washington’s father-in-law, issues had been piling up for years since his wife had died: broken pipes, holes in the roof and termites, to name a few.
“Anytime that we wanted to do something to the house, like paint or whatever, he refused to do it because he wanted the house really to stay the way it was when she was there. He was kind of in this depressed state where these things needed to be fixed, but he didn’t want to fix them because he wanted things to stay the way they were,” Washington explained. “And it was just overwhelming to us because it needed everything. Everything that you can imagine in a house that needs to be fixed, that house needed it.”
In 2009, Washinton’s father-in-law passed away, leaving the family with grief and a home on the brink of falling apart. Between his sister-in-law’s cancer recurrence and his own diagnosis, they didn’t have the resources to renovate the house, so they ended up renting another house as a short-term solution.
“Every time we wanted to fix the house, some life event came up that completely re-diverted our attention and our finances and everything,” he said. “We just left it in God’s hands. If he is going to make a way for us to fix this house, he’s going to make a way. And we can’t worry about it.”
When Extreme Makeover: Home Edition officially showed up at the Washington’s door in September, it was yet another miracle the family desperately needed but hardly expected.
credit: Engage The Vision
“For us, we were operating in our calling, so we were never like, ‘Oh, woe is me’ or anything like that. When you trust in God, you trust in him for everything, not just one thing. You’re trusting him for your health, for happiness. And we were very happy,” Washington said. “There was never a thought of, ‘Who’s going to help me?’ or anything like that. I find my help in Him.”
Thankfully, the community Washington had spent his whole life investing in was thinking about him. The Extreme Makeover crew and hundreds of volunteers created a home for the family in just five days. Even Ty Pennington, the original host of the show, showed up to help.
“We figured something else would happen and we’d be able to get a loan on the house and we’d be able to fix it like that. We had no idea it would come like this,” Washington said. “It’s like I’m not awake, have I just gone on to heaven or something?”
Washington says that the renovated house is completely unrecognizable from what it was before.
“What they did was a completely new house. We were in love with it. Every day we walk home, we walk in and we’re just in awe that we actually have the privilege to live there,” he said. “It’s the most perfect place that you could really call home.”
Even before Washington received what he calls his “back to back miracles,” he never lost his faith, and continues to advise other cancer patients to do the same.
“Don’t ever give up, and surround yourself with people who are not going to let you give up. That is what I say. You have to have your tribe, your support group–the people that love you. And you can never give up. That’s what I did. I said, ‘I have a daughter, I have a wife, I have a work that I do. I’ve got to keep on fighting,’” Washington said.
“I’m a believer in God, and my doctor was saying, ‘For my patients, I see that 90 percent is their state of mind; 90 percent of their being able to get better is their state of mind. So whatever you’re doing, keep doing it.’ So I tell people, you have to not give up and you have to keep on fighting.”
If you want to listen to our full interview with Thom Washington, checkout AfterBuzz TV’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition Insider podcast. To see the Washington’s new house, you can tune into Extreme Makeover: Home Edition on HGTV Sunday at 9 p.m. ET, and follow AfterBuzz TV for interviews with the families every week.
About The Author:
Meagan Lynn is a host at AfterBuzz TV and Elon University graduate with a degree in journalism. She loves singing, listening to inspirational podcasts and watching reality TV.
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