Sylvester Donelson and Family. Courtesy of Sylvester Donelson

Scholarship: Sylvester Donelson II

Ripple Effects: 1994 Rex Grant Changes Many Lives


We were deeply gratified and touched by a letter we recently received from Sylvester Donelson II, currently an administrator at California State University East Bay. In 1994, he received a Rex grant that enabled him to go to college — and which, in turn, has had a life-changing impact for many others.

As a kid, Donelson was on a bad path. His parents were felons who abused drugs, and by age 9, he’d dropped out of grade school. But his grandparents refused to give up on him, and his mentor, Reverend Earl Smith, showed him a better way.

Rev. Smith, who ministered to the inmates at San Quentin, had been responsible for connecting Rex with the San Quentin Mass Choir to support the recording of their album, He’s All I Need. Later, he inspired Rex’s first Executive Director, Danny Rifkin, to launch Project Avary, which works with children with incarcerated parents.

Thanks to Rev. Smith’s support, Donelson returned to school and served as a student representative on the Oakland Unified School District’s Board of Directors. In 1994, as the Choir members called on Rex to distribute the album’s proceeds, one of the designated grants was a college scholarship of $3,000 that allowed Donelson to attend Howard University.

After two years there, he had to interrupt his education because the grandparents who cared for him were in declining health. Returning to the East Bay, he cared for them in their last years. He also went to work and got married, and soon he and his wife had an instant family: they adopted his wife’s nephew and his two half sisters, and also became guardians to Sylvester’s brothers and sisters.

In the years since then, the Donelsons have sent Sylvester’s siblings to college, and in 2012, he returned to college to complete his own degree, recently earning a Master’s degree in Public Administration at California State University, East Bay.

Donelson writes:

Greetings Rex Foundation Committee Members,

 It has been 20 years since I was awarded a scholarship from you and I wanted to give you an update on what your generous support has and is allowing me to do.

I am a college administrator, and with the great support of my wife raised 8 kids (four adopted and four of my siblings). I have both my bachelor’s and master’s degrees. I advise and lobby for KinShip and Grandparents as Caregiver groups. I mentor(ed) tens of dozens of young people in the community.

Of all of this that I have accomplished, believe it or not, most of it would not have been done without your gift to me.  As a poor product of teenage parents that later became offenders with substance abuse issues, a grade school dropout, a first generation high school graduate, the opportunity was bestowed upon me to set the standard. I am a living example of hard work above all, regardless of how humble your beginnings are, pays off.

 With gratitude,

Sylvester Donelson, Jr.