The Community Foundation of the Chattahoochee Valley surprised a Columbus High School student Tuesday by announcing her as the winner of a scholarship that could pay as much as $7,200 annually for four years of college.
Columbus High senior Genesis Cooper is the 2017 recipient of the James Henry Smith and Gladys Manning Smith Scholarship, foundation president and chief executive officer Betsy Covington declared in the humanities class taught by Pam Haga.
The selection committee chose Genesis among 41 applicants, the most in the 10-year history of the scholarship, Covington said.
The scholarship is funded through an endowed fund started by a bequest from the Smiths, a childless couple. He was a fireman, and she was a millworker, but they saved well and invested wisely, especially in Aflac stock. They became “wealthy beyond their wildest dreams,” Covington said.
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Although they could afford to live in a bigger house and drive fancier cars, Covington said, they denied themselves those pleasures to help, after they died, students they would never meet afford the college education they never received.
In fact, Covington said, Mr. Smith quit school in eighth grade to take care of his mother – a similar hardship this year’s winner has overcome.
Genesis didn’t drop out of school after a series of health issues left her mother blind, with limited mobility and requiring continuous care. But, as an only child, she increasingly became one of her mother’s primary care givers and her special power of attorney. While her parents started divorce proceedings about a year ago, Genesis said, she stopped playing on the Columbus High basketball team to work at Bruster’s Ice Cream and help her mother more.
So Mr. Smith “really relates to me,” Genesis told the Ledger-Enquirer, “because I did have to stop doing a lot of the things that I wanted to do. I couldn’t go out as much. I didn’t really have the same childhood that the average 12-year-old had. I practically had a CNA (certified nursing assistant degree) by the time I was 13.
“… The only difference between me and him is the fact that he actually had to take a pause from his education. The fact that I didn’t, it kind of shows me how, when I was growing up and I would be tired and I would be worn out from taking care of my mom and coming home from school, coming home from practice and having to take care of her, my dad used to always tell me, ‘There’s always somebody going through something worse than you.’ In this case, there was somebody who went through something even worse than me.’”
Through it all, Genesis has achieved a 4.0 grade-point average, participated on the debate team, serves as senior class secretary and has been in other leadership roles, such as co-vice president of the French club. Her community service includes volunteering for the Columbus Parks & Recreation Department and Britt David Magnet Academy. She also began her own portrait photography business.
Genesis plans to double-major in English and philosophy, with a minor in entrepreneurship, at Mercer University. “That’s going to help me become a corporate lawyer and a defense attorney,” she said, “and I want to be a small business owner.”
Muscogee County School District superintendent David Lewis joined foundation representatives in Haga’s classroom to congratulate Genesis after the surprise announcement
“This is the epitome of what education means to this community and the foundation,” said Lewis, who paused as he held back tears. Then, speaking to Genesis, he added, “We’re just so proud of you and proud of what you’ve accomplished thus far, and you’ll do great things in the future.”
Covington is committed to telling the Smith couple’s story “as often as possible. I think all of us have a little bit of Smith deep down inside us, and we can make decisions about how we use the gifts that we’ve been given in life to help others. At the Community Foundation, it is such a privilege to be able to help people do that. And, I’ll tell you, even though I never met the Smiths, I believe that they are right here with us in this classroom today.”
After the ceremony, Covington emphasized to Genesis that the scholarship isn’t a gift to her; it’s an investment in her.
“What we believe is that we want you to take that investment, do all you can to get the education that I know you’re committed to, and then go out and do great things for other people,” Covington told Genesis.
For example, the first Smith Scholarship recipient, Turkeisha Fogle, who graduated from the now-closed Teenage Parenting Center in 2008 and then Columbus State University, “is overseas with the Army, teaching women how to be good citizens in the countries that they’re serving in,” Covington told Genesis. “And this is a person who had all the odds stacked against her in life, but she had this kind of eye of the tiger, and she was a great first Smith Scholar, because every year we’ve said it needs to be somebody sort of like that, and you’ve got so much of that.”
Winning the scholarship, Genesis told the foundation representatives, means “blessings on top of blessings. If I could thank the Smiths right now, I would. I mean, it’s honestly heart-stopping, head-pounding, but it’s a humbling experience. I thank you guys so much.”
HOW TO APPLY OR DONATE
For information about applying for this or any other scholarship the Community Foundation of the Chattahoochee Valley awards, or to make a donation or establish a fund, call 706-320-0027.