The dreams of children should be about Christmas and brightly-wrapped presents. They should be about endless summers, with time spent playing with friends or lazily lounging. They should be about imagination, friendships, love, learning and wonder.

Dan Jennings’ childhood dreams never had a chance. From toddler to his school age years, Jennings was much more focused on surviving.

But survive he has, and Jennings, who was separated from his mother and raised by a family friend and in foster homes in and around New York City, is one of 10 West Virginia University student-athletes who will share personal stories Tuesday, Nov. 11 as part of a unique speech class.

Each student, a representative of a WVU sports team, will deliver a five-minute motivational speech in front of coaches, fellow students and the public from 1-2 p.m. in the Jerry West Mountaineer Room of the WVU Coliseum.

The event, which is free and open to the public, is part of Carolyn Atkins’ “Speaking to Communities” course in the College of Human Resources and Education.

Click below to hear WVUToday radio spot on Student Athletes Speak Out.

Jennings’ speech is entitled “Looking for the Light,” and uses his struggles finding a stable home environment as a child to teach others perseverance and perspective.

“Someone told me that people who hear my story are in tears or are shocked,” Jennings said. “I know it makes people who see me think of me differently. They don’t know what I’ve been through.”

Jennings was first separated from his mother at age 2 when she sent him to live with a family friend. The move began a cycle of physical and verbal abuse that seemed to follow Jennings through moves to various foster homes and reunions with his mother.

There were periods of happiness but Jennings felt unwanted, unloved and unwelcome. He remembers having his mouth washed out with soap and being punished for bed-wetting by having to sleep in a hallway one night. One foster parent made him stay in the basement because he was crying. He was back with his mother at age 8, but she decided to place him back into foster care after two years because she said he was too difficult to care for.

She kept his younger brother and sister.

“That hurt,” he said.

Jennings’ final stop in the foster system was his best. His foster mother made him attend church regularly, encouraged his participation in sports and, most importantly, gave him discipline, love and structure.

“She adopted me and I call her ‘Mom,’ Jennings said. “But I’ve forgiven my biological mother and I’m trying to maintain a relationship with her.”

Despite his horrific upbringing, Jennings said he’s not reluctant to tell his story publicly.

“I feel like I’m giving a testimony,” he said. “Some people take for granted what they have. I think people will appreciate things more when they hear my story.”

Speakers, listed with their sport and speech title, are:

  • Ryan Clarke (football), Two Goals
  • Trippe Hale (football), Attitude and Opportunity
  • Dan Jennings (basketball), Not a Finished Product
  • Deniz Kilicli (basketball), Finding Your Passion
  • Chris Palmer (football), A Father’s Influence
  • Dalton Pepper (basketball), Why Education?
  • Travis Pittman (soccer), Digging the Hole
  • Mark Rodgers (football), Not to That Home
  • Bradley Starks (football), Another Way to Live
  • Jermel “J.D.” Woods (football), Be a Man

Atkins, a speech pathology and audiology professor, is an award-winning educator who conceived the course in 1990. She geared her class to athletes, she said, because they’re among the most visible members of the University population.

The original focus was for the athletes to hone their speaking skills, but the event has evolved into a unique window into students’ lives. In many cases, the student-athletes reflect on their backgrounds and the experiences that delivered them to Division I athletics.

“Some of our kids come from rough circumstances,” Atkins said. “They grow up in poverty in rural towns and the inner city. Some watch their single parents work multiple jobs to provide for them, and some grow up in solid, middle-class homes where they see their moms and dads making sacrifices and doing everything they can for them.”

Atkins is a past West Virginia Professor of the Year by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education and Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

-WVU-

dss/11/06/09

CONTACT: Janey Cink, 304-293-0224
Janey.Cink@mail.wvu.edu