A former garbage collector and now-current law school student received support from Tyler Perry to reach his goal of becoming a lawyer and is now working to inspire other campus service providers to see themselves as students.
The second-year Harvard law student has now started a nonprofit organization to support sanitation engineers, janitors, cafeteria attendees, security guards, operational staffers, or other blue-collar workers to receive need-based grants for higher education.
After mobilizing other students and friends, he has raised $70,000 to support this mission to not only help people get into school but be respected while working on campus
Rehan Staton says life before he entered academia was very different. He was a sanitation worker in Bladensburg, Maryland. His days consisted of hauling trash in a grueling grind.
However, there were people around him who encouraged him to apply to attend college. With their push, he applied and was accepted to the University of Maryland.
He continued to work with sanitation while attending college, sometimes creeping into the back of the lecture hall in his yellow uniform after finishing up a long shift. On those days, he said there was no time to shower and plenty of situations could have discouraged him.
Still, he kept on, worked long hours at the job and studying, and graduated with honors.
In 2020, he was accepted to Harvard University, one of the world’s most prestigious institutions. Many were inspired by Staton’s story and donated to support his matriculation at the Ivy League.
Perry heard about his story and stepped in to make sure while he studied at Harvard— finances were not an issue, and he could focus on law.
He had a tough upbringing but worked hard at a tireless job to eventually reach his goal,” Perry said to The Washington Post. “He deserved being able to attend Harvard the last few years without having any future financial concerns.”
The billionaire filmmaker paid his first-year tuition, and now, Staton is gearing up to graduate in May 2023 with his law degree.
As he prepares to walk across the stage to receive his diploma, Staton has looked back over his trajectory with a resolve to help others needing a little encouragement and a helping hand.
Staton is the co-founder of the Reciprocity Effect and aims to raise money to support “unsung heroes” who serve without recognition. He will also fundraise to give out need-based grants to those from the supporting staff ranks to apply to college with some financial support toward tuition.
The other co-founder is Brent Bates, the person from his old job that encouraged him to go to college. They launched on April 10.
Staton said the lightbulb was switched on to create this project one day while walking the campus of America’s oldest college. He saw a custodian and asked how she was doing on that day.
She responded, “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 felt uncomfortable by her answer and remembered how he felt as a student in undergrad.
He began conducting his own survey of other support staffers and realized the custodian was not alone. Many believed the students were looking down on them.
“When I see them, I see me,” he said.
The first act to show solidarity and appreciation to those workers he sees on campus every day was to use “his savings from working as a summer associate at a law firm to buy Amazon gift cards for 100 HLS support staff members.”
Staton delivered these cards and included a handwritten thank you card with each gift. The recipients were so moved and appreciative that their responses prompted Rehan to do something.
“I know what it feels like to be in a position where people would rather act like you don’t exist,” said Bates, who also serves as the assistant operations manager at Staton’s former employer Bates Trucking & Trash Removal.
Bates and his father, the owner of the trucking and trash removal company, donated $50,000 as seed money for the dream.
Now, the dream is in motion, and working to make a difference.
Perry heard about the Recripocity Effect and says he hopes the act of “paying it forward” becomes a part of his DNA.
“I loved hearing about his project because it’s often why I do what I do: give back to those that are overlooked,” Perry said. “I hope he carries that kindness with him through his life.”
Though he has accepted a job after graduation at a New York City law firm, he will not stop the work of connecting people in the community.
According to its website, Reciprocity Effect’s purpose is to “create a more holistic” community at Harvard Law School where all in the social ecosystem “reciprocally support one another.” The mission statement says, “We create opportunities to build solidarity between students and support staff.”
One example of how the mission is being actualized and helps not just the supporting staffers but enrolled students like Lla Anderson, a first-year law student at Harvard with financial challenges.
When staffers at the school found out she was in need of food to get by, they came together and purchased groceries for her.
Anderson is grateful for the community Reciprocity affords her and inspires her to give back— even though she has struggled also.
“The thing about Rehan and I, is we don’t come from privilege, and we’ve had these thankless jobs, and because of that, we see in a way that a lot of people don’t,” Anderson said. “I think people try the best that they can, but they don’t really know really where to begin.”