Taylor Casey was practically homeless a couple months ago and is now living with her employers, but that didn’t stop her from excelling in school.
Early Tuesday morning, the Jordan High School senior, who has a 3.98 GPA, was sitting in a dual-credit English class when she reaped the rewards of her labor.
Betsy Covington, president of the Community Foundation of the Chattahoochee Valley, marched into the classroom at about 8:30 a.m. with an entourage of foundation board members, staff and other supporters, to announce that Casey was selected as the recipient of this year’s James Henry Smith and Gladys Manning Smith Scholarship.
A speechless Casey flashed a great big smile amid hugs and kisses and later described the experience as surreal.
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“I was really in shock when you came into the classroom,” she told Covington. “I can’t believe you picked me.”
The scholarship, which will pay up to $7,200 a year, is awarded annually based on academic merit, financial need and character, Covington said. It was made possible through a $500,000 gift bequeathed to the foundation by the Smiths after Gladys’ death in 2003. Neither Gladys nor her husband had graduated from college, Covington said. He was a Bibb City firefighter and she was a mill worker.
They became millionaires investing in Aflac stock but lived a very modest lifestyle. They left their money to provide educational opportunities for future generations.
“We do this in the name of these people who cared enough about our community to want to make a change for other people,” Covington told the students at Jordan High. She said Casey is a hard-working student of whom the couple would have been proud.
Casey, 18, said she grew up in Columbus with an aunt but had to move out because of difficult circumstances. She also lived with a friend for a short period of time, which didn’t work out.
“This past year, I have been moving around a lot and I just now got to where I’m in a stable home,” she said.
That stable home belongs to David and Janet Lovett, Casey’s employers at the North Columbus Pharmacy on Veteran’s Parkway. The couple was among those at Tuesday’s event congratulating Casey on her accomplishments.
Janet Lovett said the pharmacy had a job opening for a cashier a couple months ago. She contacted Tim Vincent, coordinator of Work-based Learning for the Muscogee County School District, and he sent Casey for an interview. Lovett said she learned from reviewing Casey’s application, as well as personal conversations, that she was having a difficult time.
“I just feel that God laid it on my heart to in some way be supportive of this young lady,” she said. “I didn’t know exactly at the time what that meant. So I contacted some of my prayer warrior friends and said, ‘Just pray for this young lady. She’s going through a difficult time and I feel that God wants me to help her in some way.”
Lovett said she asked Casey if she wanted to stay with the family until she got on her feet. She said Casey was apprehensive at first because they were strangers. But mutual friends assured her that she could trust the family.
Casey said she has been living with the Lovetts for about a month and a half, and it has made her life much easier.
“When I was having to focus on where I would be staying and what not, my grades dropped a little,” she said. “I think I had a couple of Cs before I moved in with Janet and David, but I brought them up.”
Despite the hardship, Casey managed to maintain her GPA. She won first place in the state two years in a row for a social studies project she developed with a partner.
Casey is also a member of the National Honor Society, content editor for the school’s journalism group and vice president of the Student Government Association. During her junior year, she was one of the students in Jordan’s Youth Leadership Columbus Program.
The scholarship is paid annually to the college or university of the student’s choice, according to Covington. It can cover the cost of tuition, fees, housing, books and “other reasonable costs associated with obtaining a full and rewarding college education.”
The scholarship pays approximately $6,500 to $7,200 annually, which is determined by the endowed spending policy of the Community Foundation. It is renewable for four years based on full-time continuous enrollment and maintenance of at least a 2.0 GPA.
Alton White, the school’s principal, said Casey has been an outstanding student and role model for her peers.
“Obviously we’re very proud of Taylor,” he said. “She’s overcome a lot and stayed focused on her grades and the plans she has for the future, which speaks very highly of her character.”Rebekah Atkinson, Casey’s social studies teacher, cried tears of joy when her star student was awarded the scholarship.
“I just heard about it this morning and I’m still in shock,” she said. “She’s all that I ever wanted in a student. I know this going to help her and she’s going to help so many people because of it.”
Casey said she couldn’t have succeeded without the support of teachers like Atkinson and her history teacher, Amanda Tuite. She calls Atkinson ‘Miss A’ and credits her with keeping her motivated. She plans to attend Columbus State University, where she will study education with hopes of one day becoming a biology teacher.
“I want to be a teacher like ‘Miss A’ and kind of be her for a lot of other kids and make them realize that they do have potential," she said. "Because I didn’t think I had potential but then Miss "A" and Miss Tuite pushed me to do the best that I could. I love them. I really do.”
Alva James-Johnson, 706-571-8521. Reach her on Facebook at AlvaJamesJohnsonLedger.