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'I've been crying all day...happy tears': Young cellist with tormented past is in disbelief at $140,000 in donations

Eddie Adams rehearses at George Mason University. Washington Post photo by Jahi Chikwendiu.1 / 3
Eddie Adams prepares for a performance at the Hylton Performing Arts Center at George Mason University in September 2018. Washington Post photo by Jahi Chikwendiu.2 / 3
Eddie Adams chats with professor June Huang, the director of strings for George Mason's School of Music, after her music performance class in September. Washington Post photo by Jahi Chikwendiu.3 / 3

Eddie Adams didn't have the money to buy college textbooks this semester, so he had to rely on his classmates at George Mason University to loan him theirs. He is the principal cellist in the school orchestra, but he couldn't afford to buy or even rent a cello. That, too, he had to borrow.

That was two weeks ago.

After a story ran in The Washington Post about Adams's tormented, impoverished childhood and how the cello has become his lifeline, people started donating money - more than Adams ever imagined was possible.

The day the story ran, April 13, Adams looked at a GoFundMe that had been set up for him and saw it had reached $25,000. It was so much money, he was sure there was a technical problem with the fundraising site.

"I legitimately thought it was a glitch in the system," said Adams, 20, who as a child moved around northern Virginia with his mother and five siblings about seven times, including to a homeless shelter in Alexandria.

The next day when the fundraiser reached $70,000 - and hundreds of people had left comments telling him he was worth every penny - he texted his strings professor and mentor, June Huang: "I've been crying all day. . .happy tears."

And as he refreshed the site again and again over days, he watched in disbelief at the collective generosity of people who had read his life story and watched videos of him playing the cello.

As of late Wednesday, the GoFundMe donations had reached $140,055.

"I still don't want to believe it happened because it's too much money for me to even think about," said Adams, who is estranged from his family, and his only home is his dorm room.

On top of that, people donated other large and personal gifts, including: Two people are buying him cellos, one valued at up to $20,000 and another that will be specially made for him, valued at more than $30,000. A couple in Delaware bought him a $700 custom-fitted tuxedo he will wear during performances. Gift cards and checks started arriving at the university, totaling close to $5,000.

The City of Alexandria invited him to play at a homeless shelter, Huang said. He plans to do it.

A married couple, both doctors, invited Adams to dinner after being moved by his description of a childhood in which he was the target of family jokes for getting good grades and "acting white." In an email, the physicians wrote that "we are retired African-American physicians who have had our struggles with being 'white-acting' high-achievers." The dinner is set for next month.

As for the money, Adams first move was to pay a $250 deposit for an educational music festival he will be attending this summer. Then he went to the dentist for the first time since he was a child. And he paid off $15,000 in student loans that were accruing interest and had been weighing heavily on him.

"That was a very big moment for me," he said.

Also important, he said, is he is now able to rent an off-campus apartment with friends next semester, meaning he'll have an address he can list on job applications and other forms.

Huang, whose support of Adams was described in The Post story, said she has been deluged by calls and emails from people who want to help Adams. Huang first heard Adams play at an audition for the school orchestra. She dropped her pencil, forgetting to score his performance because she found it so soulful and beautiful.

When the donations started coming in, she told him: "Eddie we have just secured your education. No matter what happens to me, beyond where my health or my job may take me, you will get an education."

It was Huang's private violin student Noah Pan Stier who at age 12 set up the GoFundMe page last year after Huang told him about Adams's difficult childhood. Noah recently turned 13 and had a Bar Mitzvah, asking for donations for Adams instead of gifts. By early April, Noah had reached his goal of raising $10,000. That is the same GoFundMe that is now at more than $133,000.

"When I saw him play, I thought that he deserves to succeed and something like money shouldn't get in the way," Noah said. "It feels really good to help Eddie."

Now, Huang is the point person coordinating Adams's donations and talking with people around the country and in places like Germany, England and Singapore who contacted her in recent days wanting to help. She has been getting pro bono guidance from various estate planners, tax lawyers and accountants to figure out how to keep the money safe for Adams and make it last. She said she's been in nonstop motion the past 10 days, but she's thrilled with all the support.

"I feel a great sense of relief. Being part of a worthy cause its very life affirming," Huang said. "I knew there's a limit to what I can provide for Eddie. I needed a community behind him."

She said her dream is he will be a successful musician one day.

"I tell him, 'You owe me. When I'm in an old folks home, you better come in and play for me,' " she said.

Huang said she includes one of Adams's close friends, Adam Rothenberg, and his former middle school teacher, Gerald Fowkes, in financial discussions she has with Adams for transparency sake. She keeps all his financial information in a binder the four of them can look at. And she's trying to teach Adams how to manage his newfound money at the same time she's trying to figure it out herself.

Huang has helped him put the bulk of it in CD's so it will earn interest while they figure out what to do with it. She is trying to untangle whether his windfall disqualifies him from scholarships, grants and financial aid he has been relying on to offset tuition and living expenses.

Adams said he is now getting a lot of attention on campus, as people approach him and say they had no idea his past was so difficult, that he faces so many challenges. He's shy so the attention is not always easy for him.

"I have anxiety about these types of things, but I should get used it because it's all really good," he said. "I'm trying not to think about it because finals are coming up and I'm trying not to let that take up all my head space. I still need to study and practice as much as I was before. I need to focus on my schoolwork because that's the whole purpose of it all."

This article was written by Allison Klein, a reporter for The Washington Post.