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Rotary Club of Forsyth County honors seniors who overcame hardships

CUMMING — Educational scholarships often reward students for reaching certain levels of academic performance, but five high school seniors in Forsyth County were recognized on a more personal level last week.

The Rotary Club of Forsyth County held its annual Challenge Scholarship award ceremony Thursday, an occasion club members have marked for “well over 20 years.”

One graduating senior from each of the five traditional public high schools in the district received a $1,500 scholarship, said Rusty Smith, president of the civic club.

“The qualifications are they are chosen by counselors at school, and they have overcome a challenge or some other hardship in their lives to overcome adversity and persevere through graduation and onto further education,” Smith said.

He said this program is the “main thing we support … through many fundraisers.”

“We’ve just always felt there was a need,” he continued. “There are a lot of academic scholarships you can apply for where what your GPA is gets you this, or where you’re going gets you that, or what club you were in. But we wanted to make sure there was an opportunity or an avenue for those who truly need it, maybe a little more than the rest.”

As each student was handed an award, his or her nominating counselor was there. Some spoke, some hugged.

Jeromy Magee from West Forsyth said his hardship was endured growing up in Detroit. His brother, cousins, friends all sold drugs. When his father passed away, his mother felt he was going down the wrong path.

“She thought that I was going to become like my brothers,” Magee said.

He said when he moved to Forsyth County to live with his sister and nephew, he started playing basketball. His sister helped him stay on the right path, and his teammates and coach became his brothers.

He said he plans to attend Kennesaw State University this fall to major in mechanical engineering.

Forsyth Central’s Jennifer Estrada-Chavez was born in California. Her life changed forever when her father was deported to Mexico her sophomore year.

She moved to Mexico then back to the United States to live with family she had never met.

“My friends are my support group,” she said, adding that participating in cross country and track helped.

“Being here was a great challenge, but I am glad I am here,” she said. “It may seem bad, but it does get better.”

Justin Spaeth at South Forsyth was born with a physical disability, but he didn’t let that slow him down.

“I’ve been through at least 12 surgeries, hundreds of stitches, years of physical therapy,” he said. “I’m blessed that I could walk on my own at 10 years old.”

At Lambert, Rachel Priest received the scholarship. Priest was adopted from China by a single mother when she was 1.

In 2007, her mother’s cervical cancer spread to her lungs and she passed away six years later, during Priest’s sophomore year.

She had to move schools and live with new family members.

“Without everything, I wouldn’t be who I am today,” she said.

She said she will be going to the University of Georgia this fall to study journalism.

Rachel Hill had to adjust to life at a new school — she came to North Forsyth her junior year — after having lost her mother to cancer in that first month.

She had to work through problems with her class credits not transferring and retaking classes, all while grieving.

In a few weeks, Hill will graduate with honors before attending the University of Alabama to major in criminal justice.

“There’s many examples of where we were able to give a scholarship to a young man or woman and the connections they’ve made just by receiving that scholarship has led to many other doors opening in life, and we like to just bring them in and just lift them up,” Rotary’s Smith said. “There’s not very many dry eyes in the house after we’re done.”