Scholarship recipient 'saw beyond' childhood challenges
by Jon Gargis
Nov 08, 2010 | 2178 views | 0 0 comments | 14 14 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Cartersville High student Nick Bennett, left, talks with his mentor Susan Topham and Principal Jay Floyd in the school’s lobby Thursday. Bennett was flown out to Houston last week to receive a scholarship from the LeTendre Education Fund for Homeless Children during the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth’s annual conference.  SKIP BUTLER/The Daily Tribune News
Cartersville High student Nick Bennett, left, talks with his mentor Susan Topham and Principal Jay Floyd in the school’s lobby Thursday. Bennett was flown out to Houston last week to receive a scholarship from the LeTendre Education Fund for Homeless Children during the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth’s annual conference. SKIP BUTLER/The Daily Tribune News
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Nick Bennett describes his childhood as "tumultuous" and full of "trials and troubles."

"In terms of education, it was very difficult to have a stable learning environment. My mom, dad and I, we were moving around from place to place, and it was very hard to learn," said Bennett, now a senior at Cartersville High School. "I just tried to make a better place, tried to help my parents as much as I could.

"I studied a lot, because I knew that education was a good way for me to further my avenues in life. I knew that if I could get a good education, I knew that I would have a chance -- that's one thing that helped keep me through," he added. "I guess I was able to see beyond what was happening, and be able to realize that there's going to be life past those troubles."

Bennett, once a homeless student, now resides with his uncle and is just months away from graduation. The student has found success in high school despite his past struggles, as he holds a 3.9 grade point average. It was his story and his result that likely led officials from the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth to award him a $2,000 scholarship.

NAEHCY provides scholarship assistance to students who are homeless or have experienced homelessness through the LeTendre Education Fund for Homeless Children, established in 1998 in memory of André E. LeTendre, who served during his lifetime in the roles of teacher, debate coach, radio announcer, public relations specialist, director of human resources, Congressional staff member and White House staffer. A national advisory board, including local, state, and national educators, as well as family, friends and associates of the late André LeTendre, reviews the applications and makes the selection.

Bennett is involved in his high school's marching and concert bands, and Beta Club; he also is a member of the Bartow County Library System's Teen Advisory Board. Part of his application for the LeTendre scholarship included an essay.

"In my essay, I tried to portray how much I had achieved despite what I've come from and what I've been through, or maybe because of it, and I think that they really recognized that and recognized my dedication and my success," he said.

"I don't know how [homelessness] would affect other people, but I imagine their experiences would probably be similar to mine," Bennett added. "I'd imagine they'd have similar difficulties. And if they have the dedication to improve their place in life, they'd probably have similar triumphs, too."

"His essay focused on the positive -- it wasn't, 'Here's what I've been through', it was more, 'Here's who I am,'" said Cartersville Elementary teacher Susan Topham, who taught Bennett in her Challenge gifted class several years ago. She also has served as his mentor for eight years.

"He started letting me know what was going on at home, and that's when we kind of developed the [mentor] relationship, and I started encouraging him and just trying to help him navigate through what was life like," she said.

Topham said she has seen her former pupil develop over the years, both in his classroom performance and in his interactions with others.

"When I first met Nick, he had no friends, he would tell you he had no friends. He lived his world by reading. He didn't interact with other students, he stuttered when he did talk, so he isolated himself, and other children really didn't approach him," she said. "But through the years, he got more confident in who he was and he developed the social skills and the confidence, and in middle school, he started developing friendships. And so by the time he arrived in ninth grade, he had a support group of friends from band, and he was in honors and AP classes with students he already knew and had friendships with.

"In middle school, he took honors classes, and when he got to high school, he took honors and AP classes. It was extra hard for Nick because he didn't have a computer at home, he didn't have Internet access," she added. "He walked to the public library and utilized the computer lab there, so he's had to go above and beyond what the regular high school student has to do to do the work and just be successful."

Paula Womack, school social worker for Cartersville City Schools, said she believes scholarship judges picked up on another positive aspect of Bennett in a different part of the application.

"I think a common thread through the letter of recommendations was, 'Nick's always been extremely compassionate,' even in fifth-grade when he was going through a very dark time in his life," Womack said. "He always asked, 'How are you?' 'Are you doing OK today?' He just always cared about how the counselor, or how I was or how Miss Topham was -- he always wanted to know how somebody else was, and I think [the judges saw] that common thread throughout those four letters of recommendation, along with the fact that they've seen how he's grown from a Nick Bennett in fifth-grade who really was alone and didn't have a whole lot of friends, to GateKey two years ago with a group of kids surrounding him, and him in the middle, and to see him now with a band family, just very involved.

"It's amazing in eight years just how much he's changed. He's an incredibly resilient kid."

In addition to the LeTendre Scholarship, Bennett has more financial assistance coming his way. More than two years ago, he was named the high school's first GateKey Scholar, and is set to be one of the scholarship program's first graduates.

The GateKey Scholarship Program offers its scholars upon graduation from high school funds for tuition and an allowance for books or tools for two years at either Chattahoochee Technical College or Georgia Highlands College -- provided they maintain a "C" average in all classes, complete homework assignments and remain crime and drug free. The funds can also go toward students' expenses if they obtain the HOPE scholarship and pursue another Georgia college.

Bennett said the schools he is considering after graduation include Berry College, North Georgia College & State University, Reinhardt University and the University of West Georgia. The care Womack says Bennett has shown for others during his school career also shows in the area of study he hopes to pursue after leaving Cartersville High.

"So far, I'm thinking I'd like to study biology when I go to college, biological sciences," Bennett said. "That field's always interested me, and there's so much potential in that field to help people. If I were to do research, it could be used for so many different things -- you have so many different avenues where your work can make a difference."