HARTFORD — DeShawn Hamlet plans to spend the next few days doing laundry, packing bags, cleaning his room and saying hometown goodbyes.
After weeks of doubt, Hamlet is heading back to college.
The former Bulkeley High School basketball star said he is returning to Southern Vermont College for his junior year with the aid of city residents and Courant readers who learned that a $3,000 debt — a past due college bill that Hamlet couldn't afford — was threatening to put his education on hold.
Supporters in Hartford had donated $2,250 to Hamlet's cause in recent days, but on Thursday afternoon, he was still short $750 before the start of classes next week.
Hours after a story about Hamlet's situation appeared online Thursday evening and in the newspaper on Friday, well-wishers had donated enough money to pay off the bill — and then some.
"Even people I don't even know sent their blessings and helped me with their donations and everything," the 23-year-old said Friday. "I'm not going to let them down."
By 8 p.m. Friday, a total of $4,335 had been donated. The additional money will be deposited in a Hartford credit union to help defray Hamlet's college costs in the future, said Andrea Comer, a former State Board of Education member who led the fundraising.
"I honestly believe ... we are saving his life," said Comer, who feared the worst if Hamlet had dropped out. "I know what can happen to young black men in the streets, through no fault of their own, in some cases."
Hamlet has struggled financially to stay in college after graduating from Bulkeley in 2010. Just getting to Southern Vermont, where he has played Division III basketball, meant overcoming academic ineligibility his senior year in high school after helping the Bulldogs win the 2009 Class L state championship.
The $3,000 bill stemmed from a summer class he took last year, and that debt needed to be paid before he could access his college's financial aid package for the fall, he said. His mother, Mary Hamlet, a single parent who works as a teacher's assistant, said she felt "stuck in a hole" after lenders rejected their requests for loans.
Southern Vermont College President Karen Gross said the "financial gap" — the money not covered by financial aid packages — is a challenge for many low-income students in college. The "Catch-22," Gross said, is when "they can't borrow because they don't have qualified co-signers, but they would benefit from a four-year degree in terms of their career and livelihood."
Comer set up the online donation page at http://www.gofundme.com/dj1yvo.
"Don't give up DeShawn!" wrote one woman who gave $25 Friday. "We are all rooting for you!"
A $75 donor asked him to pay it forward someday: "Make Bulkeley and all of Hartford proud, put that diploma to good use, and come back to show the kids it can be done!"
DeShawn Hamlet, who has a 20-month-old daughter in Hartford, said he is more determined than ever to finish college in the next two years. The generosity, even from strangers, brought him to tears, he said.
"I didn't know I had more people on my side like that," he said. "It's definitely overwhelming to know I have the community and everybody looking at me to really be successful in life."