Supported by Big Brother, Hutchins teen is headed to Harvard

Written by Christina Rosales

Drew Swedlund taught Reuben Howard how to tie a tie in preparation for a mock trial competition a few years ago. “It was a bit of a dad moment,” Swedlund says.

When Reuben Howard was first matched with his Big Brother, Drew Swedlund, seven years ago, the young boy saved ticket stubs from their trips to museums and trinkets from baseball games. Swedlund snapped lots of pictures.

But the documenting slowly stopped as they reached a point when their time together wasn’t about mentoring or cultural enlightenment. It was a friendship.

Their relationship, on paper, is complete, now that they’ve graduated from the program and are transitioning into new phases of their lives. Overcoming poverty and a volatile home life, the 18-year-old is bound for his freshman year at Harvard University later this month. Swedlund, 33, and his wife just had their first baby last week.

“I had always planned on going with him to college, to see him off or help him move in,” said Swedlund, of Flower Mound, who now doesn’t plan to visit Cambridge until November.

“And then this guy had to go and get his wife pregnant,” the teen joked as they sat at dinner one summer evening.

“But I don’t see this as the end for us,” said Swedlund, a financial adviser for Merrill Lynch.

Big Brothers Big Sisters facilitated their match. But the success story belongs to the two of them. Swedlund has been a constant, accepting friend to Reuben, not just a mentor. The teen accepted his advice willingly, relishing the stable guidance that showed him what he could achieve.

‘Another world’

The two were matched in 2006 after Reuben had been on the program’s waiting list for a year and a half, about the average wait time for many children. His older brothers had taken part in the program, but their matches, or “bigs,” had fallen through after a couple of years.

“I’d see my brothers go off with their bigs,” Reuben said. “They’d get picked up and talk about all the cool things they did. I stayed at home wishing I could go.”

Finally Reuben got his wish for a Big Brother. Swedlund met Reuben’s mother in their Hutchins home, and the 11-year-old sat on the couch beaming and ready for his first field trip with Swedlund.

The first outing the two can remember was a trip to the movies with Swedlund’s girlfriend, now his wife. They saw The Ant Bully. Reuben still has the ticket stub.

“Growing up, my family never did anything,” the teen said. “So I kept a lot of the tickets because I didn’t know if I was going to go to those places again.”

For almost seven years, two or three Sundays a month, Swedlund picked up Reuben and they’d drive to Dallas, Fort Worth, Arlington — anywhere but Hutchins, Reuben thought.

“He’d pick me up, and we’d drive off,” he said. “We’d go wherever, and it just felt like I was going into another world.”

‘Our little genius’

Reuben doesn’t know his biological father, and his stepfather was in prison until May on a felony assault conviction. The teen’s mother was shot in the head by her ex, her other sons’ father, while pregnant with a baby she later lost. She has been unable to work and has been on disability because of the shooting and back problems most of her son’s life.

Reuben’s older brothers have been arrested a few times, so he considers his Big Brother his necessary and only male role model.

“My family loves me, and my mom is so proud of me,” Reuben said. “But home is just not conducive to producing a successful person.”

When Reuben was younger, he’d visit his stepfather in prison. Until high school, it was the only time he left the Dallas area. He can recite his stepfather’s inmate number by memory.

“His stepfather would say that he’s our little genius,” Reuben’s mother, Sandra, said. “We just always knew he was going to do big things. There are no limits for him.”

Reuben went to elementary school in Hutchins and then to Dallas ISD schools when the Wilmer-Hutchins district closed — yet more instability in his life. He was then accepted to the Judge Barefoot Sanders Law Magnet at Townview Magnet Center.

“All along, he knew he wanted to go there,” his mother said. “He’d say, ‘You think I’ll be accepted? What if I’m not? I don’t want to go anywhere else.’”

Reuben called the district’s transportation director many times to ensure that he would have a way to get to school every day.

Meanwhile, Swedlund was there for him, sticking during tough Advanced Placement classes, getting him to try school leadership committees, cheering him on as he competed in mock trial and debate.

“He’s always done well — he didn’t need me for that,” Swedlund said. “But when we first met, he was embarrassed that he got straight A’s. I told him it made him special, and it was just really neat to see that, over time, being smart became part of his personality.”

Part of the family

Reuben became part of Swedlund’s family, joining them on family vacations, and the Swedlunds took pride in the teen’s school successes.

“I was never this little project he did on the weekends,” the teen said. “That’s what I liked. He really included me in his family, and that says a lot.”

Reuben graduated second in his class. Swedlund and his wife joined the Howards for the ceremony. And Reuben was honored by Big Brothers Big Sisters as the region’s “Little Brother of the Year” in the spring.

“What Drew has done for me can never be repaid,” Reuben wrote in his essay for the award. “Long after we are no longer officially matched and I no longer need his push to keep me going, I know his friendship will be more than enough.”

The Big Brother taught Reuben which fork to use for his salad at dinner and how to fish. He helped pay for the teen’s first out-of-state trip, to Washington, D.C., with his class and showed him around his alma mater, Southern Methodist University.

That was where Reuben decided he’d like to go to college. Then it was the University of Texas at Austin. Then it was Swarthmore and Cornell. And then Harvard. He was accepted to all of them with full scholarships. He’ll study English at Harvard and hopes to learn more about education.

“I just don’t know that it would have happened without Drew,” Reuben said. “I just know he helped keep me from a different life.”

SOURCE: Big Brothers Big Sisters, Dallas Morning News research