Each year, the Rotary Club of Forsyth County strives to help local youth by offering scholarships to graduating seniors.
The club’s Challenge Scholarship Award is given to one student from each of the county’s five public high schools.
Instead of offering the financial assistance to the top-performing student, however, the scholarship goes to those who have overcome obstacles.
“It’s students that have had serious challenges, whether it’s emotional, family, physical — whatever it may be,” said past club president Chuck Welch. “It’s just to recognize these kids that are working hard and going to college that are probably not going to be getting an academic scholarship.”
Welch said several years back, the club noticed many students were getting scholarships, including some that might not need the money. It inspired Rotarians to start the Challenge Scholarship for motivated students who could use a hand.
The club will honor those students during lunch today. They will each receive $2,500 toward their college expenses.
“In some cases, this is the only money they’re getting to go to college, so it’s rewarding to see the genuine appreciation on the part of these kids that you know have been through so much,” Welch said.
Jasmine Brooks, Central
Jasmine Brooks is not used to being singled out. She’s just does her best to “sit in my classroom and do what I need to do, so I usually don’t think about anything else.”
That strategy has resulted in a 3.6 grade-point average and the Rotary Challenge Scholarship, which has left her short on words.
“Being recommended for something is weird for me,” she said. “It means a lot. It’s really overwhelming … I don’t know how to describe it.”
Her guidance counselor Evelyn Petersen understood.
“She kind of likes to stay in the background rather than the foreground,” Petersen said. “But she’s a well-deserving student.
“She’s going to have to get used to getting these awards because if she continues working the way she’s been working, I’m sure she’ll get plenty more in the future.”
Brooks has a blood disorder that often keeps her out of school, she said. She spends a lot of time with doctors and hematologists, but usually picks up “on everything I’ve missed really quickly.”
“And my teachers … they’ve helped so much. They’re so caring,” she said.
Brooks will graduate with honors with her class, and plans to attend Gainesville State University, where she will major in math education.
“I really like math and I’m mostly a people person, so I’m really good with being able to take math and be able to find out how someone can interpret it and help them understand it,” said Brooks, who tutors sixth-graders.
“It’s just really fun to help people and see when they understand it.”
Destiny Polly, West
Destiny Polly has not had it easy, said her guidance counselor Joanna Poynton.
“Destiny has had a hard, hard road coming along through high school,” Poynton said. “But there’s never a complaint from this child. She’s never asking for people to feel sorry for her. I find that very rewarding in a young person today.”
The senior has had a difficult financial situation, which is why the scholarship means so much to helping her as she works her way through college.
“I’m paying for college on my own,” she said. “That’s why I’ve been working for the past year.”
Polly was shocked to learn she had been selected for the scholarship.
“I definitely didn’t think I had a chance in winning,” she said. “I was excited because I’ve been working so hard just to get to college.”
Polly is still deciding between Gainesville State and Kennesaw State universities, but she’s more firm on her goals. She plans to major in biology and eventually become a dermatologist.
Part of Polly’s focus on school has been driven by her family.
“No one in my family has ever gone to college and so I thought I’d do it,” she said. “I just wanted to show everyone that I could do it.”
Poynton said it’s that drive and enthusiasm that makes her confident in Polly’s future.
“She’s had to work for every penny she spends,” Poynton said. “She’s not going to let whatever these obstacles may be stop her from accomplishing what she wants to do.”
Nicole McDermott, South
When her mother was diagnosed with cancer Nicole “Nikki” McDermott was determined to fight.
“While my mom’s walk with cancer has been difficult, we have not given up and we never will,” she said.
The cancer fight continues, but McDermott has a much smaller support system.
“It’s said that you discover your true friends in tragic times,” she said. “After my mom was diagnosed, I lost a large amount of my close friends, including my best friend of seven years.”
Instead of turning away from school, she became closer with the friends that stayed with her, and put her focus on education.
Guidance counselor Stacye Fickle said McDermott is in three Advanced Placement classes, she’s active in the school’s fine arts program and competitive DECA.
“She’s one of those kids that you want in your class. She’s gust a great all-around young lady,” Fickle said. “She’s struggled with the emotions of what was going on with her family and balanced that with everything that’s going on at school.
“She’s worked really hard to get where she’s at and we felt like she really deserved this.”
The scholarship’s reward has been twofold, McDermott said.
“Not only does it help me financially, but it also gives meaning to the way I kept pushing through when my mother was diagnosed with cancer,” she said. “Getting this award means a lot to me.”
Rachel Burkert, Lambert
Rachel Burkert has missed a lot of school due to health issues, including seizures.
“But she’s never one to say, ‘Gee, why did this have to happen to me,’” said her guidance counselor Tom Neighbor. “I truly believe life is really 10 percent what happens and 90 percent how you handle it and she’s a really perfect example of that.
“With the amount of school she’s missed, she’s always been motivated to get good grades … and always looks on the bright side.”
Burkert attributes her drive to her parents, who she said instilled education as a crucial component in life.
“It’s been tough,” she said. “But with my work ethic from my parents and the stuff they passed down to me with education being first, I made sure that no matter what — when I came back — that I got all my makeup work and made sure that I got it in so that my grades would stay at a very high level for me.”
For college, Burkert said she plans to attend either Gainesville State or Georgia Perimeter. She wants to earn both business and teaching degrees. She hopes to become a history teacher, but said the business degree will be her backup plan.
When she found out she was selected, Burkert “was stunned.”
“I actually cried because it meant so much to me that they chose me out of everybody in this school,” she said. “I think they saw that even with all the struggles I went through, I tried my best and tried to inspire people by showing that even though I have this, other people can do it too.”
Sarah Whitfield, North
Sarah Whitfield will graduate on time and in the top 14 percent of her class. But it wasn’t without a struggle.
Cancer has plagued Whitfield, taking the life of her mother, who struggled with the disease for most of Whitfield’s life.
During Whitfield’s junior year, the disease came after her when she was diagnosed with lymphoma.
“It’s hard because you want to cry with them and cry for them, but she always uplifted me and she was inspiring to me,” said counselor Kimberly Haynes. “Just watching the awesome things she did all the time, and she was always smiling and always calm.”
Whitfield spent the second semester of her junior year on hospital homebound, which means she had only about three hours a week with a teacher.
“But she kept that [3.82] GPA and that rank,” Haynes said. “She’s amazing. She’s just been such an example for her classmates and for all of the adults around her.
Whitfield said her success in school took a lot of focus, and support from her father, boyfriend, best friend and teachers.
She will attend the University of Georgia, where she plans to study anatomy and eventually become a doctor specializing in oncology.
“When I had cancer, everything that I went through made me want to become a doctor,” she said. “I didn’t want everything I’ve gone through to beat me. I wanted to prove that I’m stronger than everything else.”