Marqise Lee embraces his Trojan Family. (Widney Society Photos by Steve Cohn)

No one understands the power of family like someone who grew up without one. Just ask USC football star Marqise Lee. He’s a wide receiver with a ready smile who’s looking toward an NFL career, but not long ago, his rough start to life put his future in doubt.

Lee shared his story with members of the Widney Society, USC’s group for donors who have given $1 million or more to the university. Started in 2012, the Widney Society recognizes some of USC’s strongest backers. The group’s annual dinner last November included 86 new members whose gifts in 2013 pushed them over the million-dollar mark.

In Lee, Widney Society members heard firsthand about the Trojan students they’re helping. Lee opened up about growing up in the foster care system and thanked donors for supporting undergraduate education:

The Trojan Family means the world to me because for most of my life my world was smaller than you can imagine. It pretty much consisted of the streets of Inglewood, where growing up was tough.

My siblings and I were taken from my mother when I was 6 and put into the foster system. My older sister soon went on her own, and my two brothers joined gangs. Now one is dead and the other is in jail. For most of my youth, it was just my younger sister and I, and I tried my best to look out for her. I dreamed of being part of a family, but bouncing around made it almost impossible. There were kind people along the way I owe thanks to, like foster parents who opened their homes to me. But I never truly felt like I had a family.

From left, Glorya Kaufman, Dana Dornsife, David Dornsife, John Mork, Julie Mork, C. L. Max Nikias, Niki C. Nikias, Pamela Schaeffer and Leonard D. Schaeffer
From left, Glorya Kaufman, Dana Dornsife, David Dornsife, John Mork, Julie Mork, C. L. Max Nikias, Niki C. Nikias, Pamela Schaeffer and Leonard D. Schaeffer

But that changed when I met the Hesters, Miss Sheila and Big Steve, in high school. I became friends with their son. We were basketball classmates. I spent so much time at their house, it felt like I basically lived there. One day I asked if I could stay permanently and, with great surprise, they said yes. I finally found my family, with a few strings attached: I had to get my act together in school…

They took a chance on me, and I can honestly say I’m grateful. I’d like to say I appreciate everything you do for me—but I’ve got to keep it together. [Tearing up.] In much the same way, everybody here tonight takes a chance with every gift they make to the university. You didn’t know us when you made your donations. You took a chance on me, just a kid from Inglewood. Because of that I am forever, ever grateful to all of you.

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