In the spring of 2004, Sarah Hemminger, a Johns Hopkins University (JHU) biomedical engineering graduate student, and her husband, Ryan Hemminger, founded Thread to foster relationships between JHU volunteers and underperforming high school students who were at risk of failing to graduate. The seeds of Thread, however, were planted long before 2004.

The Inspiration

Ryan was an A student in his school in Indiana until his mother was badly injured in a car accident and could no longer work. With no income, they lost their house, moved to the inner city, and his mother developed an addiction to her prescription medications, trapping them in a downward spiral of poverty. Ryan began to fail his freshman courses and missed over 30 days of school. A handful of teachers took a special interest in him and formed an extended family by providing academic support as well as access to secure clothing, food and bus fare. By the end of his senior year, Ryan was earning A’s, had become a varsity athlete, and was accepted to the United States Naval Academy.

After high school, Sarah came to Baltimore for undergraduate and graduate school at JHU and later married Ryan. As a couple, both Ryan and Sarah had achieved academic and professional success, yet they felt that their lives were incomplete. One day, when Sarah was driving by the Paul Laurence Dunbar High School (Dunbar) on her way to school, she became aware of the contrast between the prestigious institution with its gleaming university buildings and the dilapidated high school surrounded by public housing. Sarah recognized that there were probably students at Dunbar who were like Ryan: exceptional individuals in extraordinary situations. She realized that she and Ryan needed to be part of a loving community, the kind of community that had pulled Ryan up when things had fallen apart. It was out of this need for connectedness that Thread was founded.

The Evolution: The Founding Volunteers, Board, and Staff

In the spring of 2004, Dunbar principal Roger Shaw identified 15 students who were at risk of failing to complete high school due to inadequate academic performance, chronic absenteeism, a history of detention or suspension, and/or significant challenges outside of the classroom. In Thread’s earliest days, the goal of its founding volunteers (Dan Bowers, Melissa Dattalo, Vincent Huang, and Romina Wahab) was to do whatever it took to support students’ academic and social progress, which ranged from renovating a student’s house to providing daily one-on-one tutoring sessions.

Thread became a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization in 2006 and formed a Board of Directors. Ryan served as Chairman of the Board, and Sarah took on the role of volunteer Executive Director. During this time, Sarah and the 30+ volunteers focused on providing student programming in the areas of academics, community service and team building, while the Board focused on governance, building infrastructure, and maintaining the day-to-day management of finance, fundraising, communications, and risk management.

In 2010, Sarah completed her graduate studies and became Thread’s first staff member as President & Chief Executive Officer. A few months later, Tong Zhang, a former Thread volunteer and recent JHU graduate, joined Sarah as a founding staff member as President & Chief Innovation Officer, allowing Thread to launch a second high school at the Academy for College and Career Exploration (ACCE). During this time, Sarah focused on codifying the Thread Family and Tong the Thread Resource Teams, while they simultaneously worked together with Ryan and the Board to refine the vision of the organization. As Thread continued to grow and prepare for expansion to a third high school site at Frederick Douglass High School (Douglass), the Board changed their focus to strategy and governance, Sarah took on operations, and Tong transitioned into the role of Chief Operating Officer to expand her focus to include all of student programming. In this role, Tong built critical infrastructure, systems, and processes to ensure that Thread’s unique culture and exemplary student outcomes continued to flourish as we grew. In 2014, the Tong Zhang Innovation Fellowship was created to honor her tremendous contributions.

Since 2004, the Thread community has grown from 15 students and co-founders to 255 students, their families, over 800 volunteers, and over 175 collaborators. Thread’s primary goal for the future is to maintain exemplary outcomes and support as many students as possible, as quickly as possible.