When James Abbott pulls at the threads of his childhood memories, he describes one in particular like a scene from a movie.
“A car comes up, you are told to get in the car, and the car drives away. The last picture you have is your mom on the porch crying.”
That was the moment when Abbott, who is now 60, left his family and entered foster care.
Abbott, who grew up in Snohomish County, spent most of his high school years with a foster-care family. He was a computer geek in the 1980s, spent his career as a certified public accountant in the 1990s and has worked for Microsoft since 2001. Now, he’s giving back to the high school he says changed his life with a $42,500 donation to the Mukilteo Schools Foundation, the majority of which went to Mariner High School. Microsoft added to his gift with an additional $38,000.
Most of the funds will help pay for low-income high schoolers to take college classes for credit; the remainder will go to the district’s foundation and ACES High, an alternative high school.
“I wanted to pay back Mariner for the opportunity they gave me,” he said. “And I wanted to help foster kids, like I was.”
The donation is the largest Mariner has seen in many years, said principal Nate DuChesne. It will benefit students with backgrounds similar to Abbott’s. About 12 foster students attend the school and 65-70% of the student body is low-income.
Only about 20% of foster youth who graduate from high school go on to college, compared with about 60% of high-school graduates overall, according to a report by the Pew Charitable Trust. And foster youth who do go to college are much more likely to drop out, the report says.
Abbott’s donation will pay students’ fees for College in the High School classes — 5-credit college courses taught by Mariner teachers in a range of subjects that would otherwise cost $220 apiece. Some students qualify for a limited number of tuition waivers through the state, so Abbott’s gift will help cover their remaining fees, DuChesne said. Overall, he said, the donation will pay for fees for students to take 100 courses each year for the next three years.
“This is significant in my eyes because many of these students, if there are barriers in the way while they’re in high school, sometimes it becomes more difficult to go to college,” he said. “This is opening doors for them at an earlier age.”
Abbott’s mother is Japanese and his father is American. He was born on a military base in Japan, and was 10 when his father retired from the Navy and the family settled in Washington. His father struggled with alcoholism and often could not pay the rent, Abbott said. They moved around when landlords kicked them out.
During his freshman year at Snohomish High School, he made friends easily and became a strong tennis player. But when his dad landed a job on a ship that took him far from home, Abbott’s mother began to struggle emotionally. The family’s home was run down, and Abbott, the eldest of six children, remembers the kids cooking their own meals. He still holds onto guilt for his own behavior at that time, he said. “I kind of have to take some responsibility for my childhood,” he said. “It just wasn’t my parents. We were not the best of kids.”
Early in his sophomore year, a family friend called child welfare workers, and soon after a representative showed up on his doorstep. “I just got in the car and away we went,” he said. “At the time, it didn’t seem painful. But now, it’s quite painful.”
A foster family in Everett took him and one of his brothers in, and he enrolled at Mariner. He was the new kid — but he kept up with tennis and made friends. He hung out with a crew of kids who liked academics and influenced him to keep his grades up. He also became close with several teachers.
“He became a 24-hour student,” said Abbott’s former teacher, Gordon Rosier, who taught at Mariner for 29 years and has stayed in touch with Abbott. Then came the student government election, “And I said, ‘James, the kids really like you. You’re a good role model and you’re a good politician. Why don’t you run to be president of the high school?’ He did and he won.”
After high school graduation in 1978, Abbott enrolled, then quickly dropped out, of Washington State University. At Boeing from 1979-1981, he worked a graveyard shift building specialized airplane tools while taking math and other courses at Everett Community College during the day. When he was laid off from Boeing, he soon found other opportunities: After seeing the 1983 science fiction thriller “WarGames,” he bought a $3,000 Apple computer system and learned low-level hacking techniques. He was savvy enough that a pizza joint he worked for asked him to computerize their billing system.
He finished a degree at Everett, then studied accounting at Central Washington University. He later became a partner at an accounting firm. He’s since worked in various departments at Microsoft, and now lives in Port St. Lucie, Fla., close to his mother. He’s reconnected with his siblings, he said, and also made amends with his father, who passed away in 1998.
Abbott said he decided to donate to his high school in hopes that other alumni will do the same. He also hopes current students, especially those who’ve faced serious struggles in their young lives, might be inspired by the hardships he’s overcome.
“You have a more difficult life and more challenges. But more often than not, you can survive it. You can climb out of that hole.”