Man Forced to Become Trash Collector When No College Would Accept Him – Then, His Brother Drops Out and Makes a Huge Sacrifice
“When I see them, I see me.”
Rehan Staton used to collect trash for a living. Next month he’s graduating from Harvard Law School.
It was an Ivy League dream he never would have achieved on his own and now he’s giving back to those in the industry that helped make it a reality.
Staton, 27, recently co-founded a non-profit that raises money to support janitors and other support staff. Its goal is to honor and recognize the “unsung heroes” who work behind the scenes by giving them need-based grants.
So far, he’s raised more than $72,000.
Staton’s Road to Harvard Was Paved With Adversity
Staton was just 8 years old when his mother walked out the door and out of his life. His father, forced to raise him and his brother on his own, struggled to provide for the family, often working multiple jobs just to try to pay the bills.
“There were times where we just didn’t have electricity,” Staton told Today. “We didn’t have food in the fridge.”
It took a heavy toll. Staton struggled academically through school and no college would accept him.
With no other option, he got a job working for a sanitation company, collecting garbage and cleaning out dumpsters. But it turns out that while he was picking up trash, his co-workers, most of whom were formerly incarcerated, were picking him up.
For the first time, he had a community rally around him and it made all the difference.
“It was the first time in my life a group of people really just empowered me, uplifted me, told me I was intelligent. I believed in the hype, and I was ready to go to school,” he said.
His brother agreed, going so far as to sacrifice his own college education to make it happen. Already attending Bowie State University, Reggie dropped out so he could help their dad and Rehan could go to college.
Once Denied Entrance to Every College He Applied To, Staton Goes to Harvard
Staton excelled at the University of Maryland even after his dad suffered a stroke and he had to juggle working back at his old job with his studies in order to help his brother save their home.
He would go to work at 4 a.m. and then attend classes, often still wearing his yellow uniform when there was no time to shower.
In 2018 he graduated with an undergraduate degree in history. And in 2020, he was accepted into Harvard.
His inspirational story made national headlines and caught the attention of media mogul Tyler Perry who ended up funding Staton’s Harvard tuition.
“He had a tough upbringing but worked hard at a tireless job to eventually reach his goal,” Perry wrote in a statement to the Washington Post. “He deserved being able to attend Harvard the last few years without having any future financial concerns.”
How a Former Trash Collector Paid It Forward
Through it all, Staton never forgot his roots.
So, a year ago, when a Harvard janitor responded to him asking how she was with: “I’m sorry – I didn’t know you were talking to me. Students would usually rather look at the wall than talk to me,” Staton knew he had to do something.
He responded by using his savings from working as a summer associate at a law firm to buy Amazon gift cards for 100 Harvard Law School support staff members.
He personally delivered each one inside a handwritten thank you card.
“I remember what it’s like working that type of job,” said Staton.
“When I see them, I see me,” he continued. “I view them as my equal. They are just my peers.” And he wants others to see them the same way.
With financial backing from his former employer, Bates Trucking & Trash Removal, Staton also started the non-profit organization, the Reciprocity Effect. Its mission is to “honor support staff affiliated with educational institutions and corporations and aid those affected by personal hardships and catastrophes.”
An Amazing Full Circle Moment for a Trash Collector Turned Harvard Grad
To date, the Reciprocity Effect has raised over $70K and more than $100K in pledges.
To celebrate the launch of the non-profit, Staton and Bates held an awards ceremony to honor 30 Harvard support staffers. They handed out gift cards and customized trophies. More than 160 people attended, cheering them on.
It’s just the beginning.
Staton — who will be working at a law firm in New York City after graduation — told the Post that he hopes to expand the initiative beyond Harvard to educational institutions across the country.
He wants support staffers everywhere to feel valued and seen.
Staton’s journey from trash collector to Harvard graduate speaks to the incredible power of community. If it hadn’t been for the support of his former colleagues, he never would have achieved his goals.
It is something that he will always be grateful for and he plans on spending a lifetime giving back to those who lifted him up and changed his life.
“No one does it alone,” said Staton. “Just keep paying it forward.”