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Running Start

Updated: Feb 4

By: Jonathan Okanes

With Support From Many Corners, Former Cal Runner Francesca Weems Is A True Golden Bear Success Story

Before she ran to pursue state championships and school records, Francesca Weems ran in the name of something else. Survival. After spending much of her early childhood hopping from island to island in Hawai'i as a member of a family that experienced chronic homelessness, Weems wound up in foster care on the Big Island and started elementary school at the age of 8 1/2. She couldn't read or write. Having never been formally educated, she was immediately placed in intensive tutoring at Kahakai Elementary School in Kailua-Kona. Kahakai's remedial reading tutor, Grace Miller, was charged with bringing Francesca and her older brother up to grade level in reading, writing and math. "When she'd get really frustrated or really emotional, I would say, 'Let's just go outside. Let's run to the fence and back,'" said Miller, who worked with Weems during her first year in school. "I think even then she knew how amazing it was to run, to feel good and let off steam. We would do that at least a few times a week, just to go out and blow off some steam." Weems took well to the tutoring and ran with it, figuratively and literally. She started school in second grade – a year below her age group – but by the time she reached fifth grade she was offered the chance to skip to sixth. An assortment of foster parents kept her active in sports, and she ultimately ended up becoming a Hawai'i state champion in the 100-, 200- and 400-meter dash, earning her an offer from Cal. "She was so brave," Miller said. "Here's this little 8 1/2-year old taken from her mom, who she loved, and all of the sudden had foster parents. She's sitting in a cubicle with a stranger for two hours a day. She was questioning. She was emotional. We would do what we had to do. If she needed to cry or talk, we took the time for that. But she was so resilient. I think it was her own drive and her own spirit that helped her overcome her hurdles." Weems' mother, Angela Weems, has schizophrenia. She tried her best to raise her children, but Francesca and her brother were ultimately placed in separate foster homes. While Weems was able to quickly thrive in school, she admits she didn't do the same at home. She tested the different foster parents she had, wondering if any of them truly loved her like her mom. That was until she moved in with Jacque Woods. "I stopped doing it. It was pretty immediate," Weems said. Woods had been a part of Weems' life as a social worker from the moment Weems went into foster care. Woods visited her often, providing a role model as an African American woman. She did Weems' hair, helped with her skin care, taught her about African American cooking and had her spend the night at her house from time to time. After repeatedly seeing Weems looking despondent at a local bus stop, Woods made the decision to take her in permanently at the age of 14, giving up her role as a social worker since it was a conflict of interest. "Her head was always down, just like she was stuck with the wind knocked out of her," Woods said. "Her self-esteem was gone. I got tired of seeing her just looking down without a purpose." Woods had rules, and one of them was to love unconditionally, no matter how she was treated in return. "I threw tantrums," Weems said. "I was manipulative. I trusted people and I was open, but at the same time I didn't feel like people had my best interests at heart. So, I would challenge families and want to push them emotionally to the edge so they wanted to give up. Only Jacque survived, and she only survived because she used to be a social worker. She knew the signs. She called it out. She'd often say, 'I know what you're doing. It's not going to work and I'm still going to be here. I love you, so let me know when you come out of whatever you're doing.'" Another one of Woods' rules was to "pick a college." As it turned out, Weems was picked as a Bill & Melinda Gates Millennium Scholar and earned a full academic scholarship to Cal, where she competed from 2006-09. She landed a spot on the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association Division I All-Academic Team. Weems earned a degree in mass communications at Cal with eyes on a career in sports broadcasting. Her interest in broadcasting began much earlier after a chance meeting with future ESPN anchor Neil Everett at the age of 4. Everett was a sports information director at Hawai'i Pacific University in Honolulu when he spotted Francesca and her brother wandering around campus. He asked if they were OK and ending up taking them to a local fast food restaurant. That was the beginning of a regular routine. "They were clearly struggling," said Everett, who has now been an ESPN anchor for 20 years. "I don't know what happened, but somehow they just touched my heart. They were attached to me. They'd show up at my office. I was in the back and I would hear my boss go, 'Neil, your friends are here.'" Everett took the kids to the beach and basketball games. He bought Francesca a dress. He bought her brother a bike. "I did what I could to put a smile on their face because they looked like they could use one," he said. As it went during Weems' early childhood, she and her family eventually moved on. Almost 20 years later, Everett received an e-mail from reporter Sherry Hu of KPIX-TV in San Francisco. Hu had become a mentor for Weems since she had arrived in Berkeley and wanted to invite Everett to her graduation party. "She said Francesca was graduating from Cal with honors and had been on the track & field team. I was just blown away," Everett said. Everett made the trip up from Los Angeles to the party at Hu's home in Oakland as a surprise. "I had no idea he was going to be there. They were like, 'Hey, Fran. Turn around.' And there he was," Weems said. "I just started to cry. I had been following his career at ESPN. It was crazy." After earning her master's degree in education at Cal, Weems began her sports broadcasting career at WLBT in Jackson, Mississippi. Two years later, she landed a similar job at Hawaii News Now in Honolulu – the same network that employed Everett before he departed for ESPN. "I was really honored that she thought enough of me and followed me, and then I was ecstatic when she got the gig in Hawai'i," Everett said. "I thought this would be a great Hallmark movie." Weems eventually left the broadcasting business and now works for FleishmanHillard, a global communications agency. Not only is Weems putting her expertise in media relations and executive communications to work with some of the world's biggest brands, she is also a leader for the company's diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. "My life is a lesson on equity," Weems said. "Equality is giving everyone the same thing. Equity is focused on understanding that each one of us needs something different to thrive." In her quest to create an environment where people can bring their authentic selves to work, Weems channels the support she's received along the way – the extra tutoring from Miller, the investment from Woods despite having twin girls of her own, the inspiration from Everett, the mentorship from Hu, and others. "I'm so blessed that I had – and continue to have - a diverse group of people that build me up and allow me to learn from them and push me to be myself," Weems said. "They were there when I stumbled fell. They comforted me when I encountered imposter syndrome and felt I wasn't good enough. Now I want to provide that same support for those coming up behind me. I want to remind people they do have what it takes to succeed, and they do belong."

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