It is often said that, to succeed academically, students need just one adult on campus to believe in them. For Kevin Qualls, a recent graduate of El Segundo High, that person was the school custodian.

In truth, many adults at the school surely believed in Kevin -- who graduated earlier this month in the top 5 percent of his class. But in custodian William Ochoa, Kevin saw a kindred spirit.

Both grew up in poverty-stricken south Los Angeles, where Kevin still lives. Both were raised in single-parent families with an absent father. Both were outsiders who felt embraced by a suburban community whose quaint small-town architecture feels a world away from the gritty neighborhoods they've called home.

"Everybody shows me so much love here," Kevin said.

Their friendship began one day after school hours, when Ochoa walked into the computer lab and found Kevin in there alone, lost in work.

Normally, Ochoa would kindly ask such a straggler to leave -- in fact the rules require it. But Ochoa, who is commonly chatty with students, struck up a conversation. He learned that Kevin hung around the school or in the nearby El Segundo Public Library every night until 7 or 7:30 p.m., because that was the earliest his mother could get to school to pick him up after working all day in Century City.


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"I thought to myself: If I kick him out, where is he going to go?" Ochoa said. "I figured, it's not going to hurt anyone for him to stay here for an hour."

Over the course of the year, Ochoa and Kevin got to know each other better. Sometimes, in the evening, Kevin would walk back to the school from the library -- perhaps to retrieve a book he'd forgotten, or perhaps just to shoot the breeze. Ochoa would open the locked door.

"He would always ask about my kids," said the 32-year-old Ochoa, who these days lives in Lawndale with his wife and two young children. "You never see a kid ask you about your family, about your kids."

When Kevin worked the snack shack at Friday night football games, Ochoa and the other custodians would joke around with him.

When Kevin learned he was a finalist for the prestigious Gates Millennium scholarship -- a jackpot award funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that foots the entire bill for the tuition, room and board of the lucky winners -- Ochoa was one of the first people Kevin told.

From the beginning, the odds haven't been in Kevin's favor.

The 85th Annual Commencement ceremonies are held at El Segundo High School on June 13. Valedictorian Kevin Qualls gives his speech.
The 85th Annual Commencement ceremonies are held at El Segundo High School on June 13. Valedictorian Kevin Qualls gives his speech. (Photo for the Daily Breeze by Axel Koester)

Half-black, half-Samoan, Kevin is a resident of Leimert Park, a south Los Angeles community located within the attendance boundaries of Crenshaw High School, where test scores are abysmal and the dropout rate astronomical.

In 2006, Kevin -- an only child -- saw his small family become smaller. That was the year his father, who'd long battled depression, was committed to a board-and-care facility for the mentally ill in Carson.

From that point on, his immediate family has consisted of two members -- Kevin and his mom, Alofa Qualls. Every day, she drove him to school in El Segundo from Leimert Park, then traveled all the way up to Century City, where she works in the accounts-receivable department of an insurance company.The family actually lived in El Segundo in the distant past. But they moved out when Kevin was in kindergarten because they couldn't afford it. Ever since, his mother had enrolled him in El Segundo's public schools as a permit student.

Kevin was in middle school, he said, when the sacrifices made by his mother really hit him.

"I thought, if my mom is pouring so much sweat and hustle to take me here, I might as well make the most of it," he said.

Alofa said her son has been undeterred by the roadblocks. "He's not using any of those excuses to use it as a cop-out," she said. "He rose from all that."

At El Segundo High, where student test scores are exceptional, Kevin did more than hold his own. In addition to graduating near the top of his class, he won the contest among students for giving the valedictory address, which he delivered on commencement day June 13.

He was recognized by the El Segundo Masonic Lodge earlier this month as El Segundo High's Student of the Year.

"I had the pleasure of teaching Kevin in AP physics this year," said teacher Steven Eno. "Kevin is the most respectful and hardest working student that I have ever worked with. ... Kevin made a habit of coming into class early and leaving class late to get as much time working with physics as possible."

Most impressively, Kevin was a recipient of that Gates Millennium scholarship, which will cover the entire $62,000-a-year bill for him to attend and live on the campus at USC, where this fall he plans to begin studying mechanical engineering.

Shortly after he learned the good news, he sought out Ochoa.

"He was sweeping one of the science rooms, and I came up to him," Kevin said. "We just looked at each other and he's like, 'What?' I said, 'I got it.' "

Ochoa threw the broom down and gave Kevin a hug.

Any student who receives so many accolades in a year has also by now doled out public thank yous. During these moments, Kevin is quick to credit his parents -- and Ochoa.

Ochoa -- who in addition to his full-time job as a custodian works 20 or so hours a week at a print shop in El Segundo -- is a little hesitant to take any credit for Kevin's success.

"I don't know what I did -- he did all the work," he said.

But Kevin assures that Ochoa was a big help.

"He was just the friend you could count on at the end of the day," he said.