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In devoting his life to his kids, Donte was finally able make peace with the ghost of his father. They had reconciled briefly in 2003, and his dad died four years later. "It was nice to finally connect with him, but I didn't get to say all the things I needed to," Donte says, his voice catching. Soon tears are streaming down his cheeks. "He impacted my life in so many ways through his absence. He made me the father I am because I was determined to give my kids the things I never had, and I don't mean material things. I want to teach them how to love, how to feel good about themselves. I want them to know education is important, family is important, God is important. I want them to know I will always be there to protect them. I want them to know what it means to have a father who loves them."
Donte, 32, whispers these things to his kids every night when he tucks them into bed in their small apartment in El Cajon, Calif. By 8 p.m. he is usually asleep himself because at 1:30 a.m. his alarm clock inexorably comes to life. Donte dresses in the dark and heads off to a 3 a.m. shift at Sycuan Casino, leaving behind a nanny who shares a bed with Kailea, eight. (Donte Jr., six, sleeps with his dad.) Donte works on the "drop team," which collects money from the slot machines. If he hustles he can be back home by 8 a.m., allowing for a 20-minute catnap before he heads to class. He is taking courses at two colleges, working toward a degree in family counseling. "I feel it's my calling to help others, but it comes with a lot of tension," he says. "I want to better myself, but should I be going to school or should that time go to my kids?"
He already gives so much of himself to his children. Following his classes Donte drives to Rowan Elementary, where Kailea is in third grade and Donte Jr. the first. After he volunteered five days a week for more than a year, the school put him on the payroll. "Donte means so much to all of our kids," says Jennifer French, a teacher at Rowan. "A lot of them come from disadvantaged backgrounds and don't have positive male role models, so they just flock to Donte. He is so calm and patient and gentle with them. He has become a very important part of our family here."
It should be no surprise that Donte is active in Rowan's PTA. He also attends church at least twice a week and mentors teenagers in what he calls his "spare time."
"A lot of us wonder how he can maintain this life, how he can keep going," says longtime friend Michael Michaels. "But when you see his kids, you know."
Kailea is a sweetheart with beautiful manners and an irresistible smile. Donte Jr. is a warm, gentle boy with a sly sense of humor. There is no furniture in their living room, and the kids have invented their own "video game," drawing on a dry-erase board and using a pretend joystick. Two of their prized possessions are snazzy backpacks they picked out at Start Smart, an annual event that Phil Mickelson hosts for about 2,000 kids from lower-income school districts across San Diego County. Mickelson pays for buses to bring the children to a big-box store, and they can choose school supplies, a variety of clothing, two pairs of shoes and other goodies. At the end of the day Mickelson picks up the bill, which runs well into six figures. Donte went to Start Smart in August 2011 as a chaperone. He had never heard of Mickelson but was impressed with what he saw.
"Just watching Phil interact with the kids and parents, you can see he's genuine," Donte says. "You can see it's from the heart. Because he doesn't have to help people like us. All the stuff the kids got at Start Smart was a tremendous blessing. I had wanted to take them school shopping but, honestly, the finances weren't there. They came home and laid out all the clothes and could not wait to wear them on the first day of school. It was great for their self-esteem. It made me feel good too, because I want my kids to have nice, new things. They deserve that."
The life of this single dad remains a paycheck-to-paycheck struggle. It is the love of his children that keeps the darkness at bay. The other day Donte was brushing Kailea's hair when she casually said, "You know, Dad, I'm glad you stayed in our life so we would know someone cares." He was man enough to let her see his tears.
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