‘Mom I did it!’: Henrico man overcomes tragedy, keeps promise to graduate high school

A Glen Allen High School graduate is proud to be entering the next phase of life, fulfilling a promise made to his late mother.
Published: Jul. 5, 2023 at 3:27 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 5, 2023 at 6:19 PM EDT
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HENRICO, Va. (WWBT) - A Glen Allen High School graduate is proud to be entering the next phase of life, fulfilling a promise made to his late mother.

“It was a promise that I kept with my mom, and I made sure I got it done,’ said Tarek Kassim.

On June 7, Tarek crossed the stage at the Siegel Center and graduated from high school.

“I know that she is proud of me,” Kassim said. “I know that she’s right by my side.”

Tarek’s mother, Betty, struggled with her mental health throughout her life. Tarek says he attended five high schools before eventually dropping out and working.

Tarek Kassim and his mother Betty
Tarek Kassim and his mother Betty(Tarek Kassim)

“Mom and I moved to so many places; she always tried her best to provide a home for us,” Kassim wrote in his college essay. “I have attended so many elementary, middle and high schools that I can’t remember them all. Not to mention my inability to keep a friend. I have absolutely NO problem making friends. I love being around people. I have overcome social adversity by exercising my leadership skills. I have had to adapt to so many schools and social settings that I understand how to not stand out but how to make friends quickly. I understand human beings,” he added.

In March 2022, Kassim was living with his mom and brother in an apartment on Chamberlayne Avenue. After spending a night at a friend’s house, the brothers came home to find nothing left.

“We couldn’t get the door open. Everything had burned,” Kassim said.

A fire tore through the building overnight. Their mother got out of the fire, but Kassim says she was nowhere to be found. Weeks of searching for their mom turned into months.

“We [were] homeless,” he said. “We had nights that we were starving, sleeping on floors. I mean, it was so hard, and the whole time, my mother was missing. We ended up finding out that she was incarcerated the whole time. When we put in a missing persons report, no one got back with us.”

In July 2022, they learned she was transferred from a correctional facility to a hospital.

“She was pronounced brain dead at 7 a.m. in the hospital on July 26, 2022. It was hard to conceptualize and come to terms that she was gone,” Kassim said. “She didn’t even make it to 40 years old.”

Kassim says he did not know who to call. Most of their family members are incarcerated. They did remember one person from their childhood who they felt they could depend on.

“I was like nine years old when I first met Judy,” Kassim said. “My mom and her were great friends. I mean, I didn’t know her [that well] as a younger kid. But over the last year, we’ve grown so close and have an amazing bond now. They’ve helped me get through so much. I don’t know where I would be now if it wasn’t for the support system. My brother is [also] definitely a support system. So he was so happy that I graduated and he is expecting his first child now. Our family gets to keep growing,” he added.

Judy Bradley, a retired Hanover County educator, is who Kassim called for help. She and her family opened their home, providing him with a room as he got back in school to keep the promise he made to his mother.

Judy Bradley
Judy Bradley(NBC 12)

“In September 2022, Tarek walked into Glen Allen High School, knowing no one, having no family present with no documents other than what Meadowbrook High School, his last enrolled school, provided,” said Bradley. “[He] looked up at the sky and said, ‘give me strength, Mama.’ He enrolled himself as a senior. I learned so much from him. He understands what it’s like to fall and what it’s like to rise up, and he sees nothing but the future.”

Bradley says she has watched the now 20-year-old Kassim thrive.

“I’ll say, ‘Tarek, did you get your homework finished,’ or ‘do I need to help you with anything?’” Bradley said. “[He will say] ‘no, you do not, but yes, indeed, I got my homework done.’ We told Tarek that when he walked across the stage, even though his mom wasn’t with them, we were. So we all stood up and said YES INDEED!”

Tarek and Judy
Tarek and Judy(Judy Bradley)

During his time at Glen Allen, Kassim says he remained focused while navigating a full course load.

“I had a total of nine classes, and it was a lot because the average senior has to take four classes,” Kassim said. “It was so much riding on the matter because I’m currently 20-years-old and this would have been the last year that I would have been able to do it in public schools. I never had to have tutoring. I’ve never had to have remediation. I passed on my SOLS the first time around. I passed all my end-of-the-year exams first time around, all of my final essays. I passed everything, and I just worked hard,” he added. “I was also a part of the Jaguar Gents there, which is a mentor program. I mentored a ninth grader.”

For most of his life, moving and attending different schools made it hard to make and keep friends. Kassim’s time at Glen Allen gave him an opportunity to finally form healthy and meaningful friendships.

“I met some amazing people along the way,” Kassim said. “I had some great friends at school. My teachers are very supportive. They want to see me do great things, and I plan to see the dream out. I’ve been trying to have a positive mindset for months now. That has made my mental health a lot better. My anxiety a lot better, my social skills a lot better. It’s just, everything is kind of falling into place.”

Kassim is heading to Richard Bland College in Prince George in the fall with plans to transfer to a four-year university after he completes the two years at Richard Bland.

“I plan to either major in marine biology or psychology,” he said. “For psychology, the reason more so is because I feel like I can understand people a lot.”

Judy is helping him prepare for move-in day at college and is confident Kassim will continue to experience success.

“That day will be a day where I will look at him, give him a hug and let them know I’m just a phone call away and he’s not alone,” Bradley said. “I think that’s the most important part, sending the message that you got that is, you know, you’ve risen.”

Proud of how far he has come, Kassim hopes his journey will inspire someone to keep going and not give up.

“I try to stay positive, too, every day,” he said. “I guess because I don’t let my hardships and everything that I’ve been through in my life define me. I would say, don’t give up it’s worth fighting for, or you will be in a better place after getting it accomplished, and you got this.”