One recalls that confusing and emotional day his father dropped him and his younger sister off at an orphanage, never to be seen again.
Another took on part-time jobs and dipped into stock savings meant for college after his single mother lost her job due to the pandemic crisis. Three others were born or grew up in refugee camps after their families fled persecution and danger.
Now, throw in full-time school, family obligations, financial, physical and other hardships, the ongoing effects of a national public health crisis and the normal grind of living life.
Say hello to some of this year’s 16 winners of the annual Optimist Club of St. Paul college scholarships. The $2,500 awards are targeted at overachieving public St. Paul high school students from mostly low-income families. The club has awarded nearly $500,000 since the creation of its Youth Appreciation Foundation in 1997.
I get pumped each year, particularly this unnerving one we’re living through right now, learning about these remarkable, resilient and largely unheralded young men and women sculpting a future in our backyard.
“When I think of 2020 there are many reasons to see darkness versus light – Covid and its various impacts, George Floyd, our last election,” said John Tillotson, a longtime club member and a senior vice president at Minneapolis-based Stifel Investment Services.
“I am so thankful for these young adults.” Tillotson added in an email. “They have a thirst for a fulfilling future coming out of a troubled past, and they are examples of why we can all have faith in our system as a country. Their examples of courage, resilience, drive, compassion, unselfishness, and optimism should be inspiring to us all.”
The winners include Allemu Slattery, a senior at Great River School. He was born in a small village in Wolayita, a southern zone of Ethiopia. His mother died from AIDS a few years later, leaving his father to care for Allemu and his younger sister, Elfenesh, then 3 and now 14.
One of Allemu’s chores was to trek three miles from his family home and fill a large plastic water jug from a well spigot. One day, his father, apparently unable to care for his two children, dropped them off at an orphanage.
“I never saw my father again,” he told me. The siblings were later adopted by Paul and Maggie Slattery of St. Paul through the Children’s Home Society.
Allemu had never gone to school, knew only the word “blue” in English, and would later be diagnosed as dyslexic. A decade later, he is ranked among the top 5 percent in his senior class with a weighted 4.2 GPA at “one of the most rigorous high schools in Minnesota,” school official Teresa Hichens-Olson wrote in his award nomination letter.
He serves as a literacy and math mentor at a local elementary school where he also developed a program designed for students with dsylexia.
He founded “Oodles for Noodles,” a project that locates surplus unused food and distributes it to local food shelters. He is the state’s chapter president of Roots Ethiopia and created a GoFundMe page to raise money for poverty-stricken Ethiopian families.
He also took part and raised funds for Fort Snelling, a drive to place flags at the graves of veterans. A star basketball player at his school before the pandemic scrapped the season, he served as an election judge during this summer’s primaries in August and also works 20 hours a week at a bike shop in St. Paul.
It was at the orphanage where “we witnessed this young boy who is now our extraordinary son,” the Slatterys wrote in an email. “We are beyond blessed to have him in our lives.”
Allemu, who is considering pursuing a career in design engineering, has applied for early decision at Stanford University and the University of Minnesota.
“Coming from nothing I always wanted to push myself, to be the best I can be,” said Allemu.
One of Allemu’s senior classmates, Mason Mead, is another scholarship award winner who plans to become the first in his family to attend college.
His school’s student council president, Mead founded an environmental club and developed a system where now the cafeteria is 100 percent compostable – silverware, plates, and food wrappings among other items. A nearby business is using the system. Mead was also leading a solar panel installation effort that has been temporarily shelved because of the Covid-19 restrictions.
He has led an American Red Cross blood drive and interned with a lobbyist to raise funds for more addiction recovery efforts in Minnesota. Mead also set up a financial literacy and stock market club to help low-income students and their families learn more about financing and money management.
The holder of Apple shares and a stock portfolio, the 18-year-old absorbed the lessons of market fluctuations and day trading through an ongoing internship with a Securian Financial executive.
But 2020 has been a bear of a challenge. His mother, a Pilates instructor, was let go when gyms and other similar facilities locked their doors. Mead helps take care of his 5-year-old sister while his mother looks for work. He tapped into some of his stock savings, earmarked to pay for future college costs, to help make ends meet.
“My family needs it so that takes priority,” he said.
While distance learning, he also remotely works two part-time jobs — creating presentations and spreadsheets as an office assistant for an addiction consultant group, and editing White Bear Lake area business websites through a marketing and event planning outfit.
Interested in public policy, environmental science and possibly elected public service down the road, Mead has applied to Brown University for early decision. He plans to also apply to Colby College in Maine and the University of Wisconsin-Madison and other schools that offer 100 percent need-based scholarships because “I really need help going to college.”
“Mason has not only the most positive attitude I’ve ever seen, he works incredibly hard and uses his talents and skills to help others,” wrote Hichens-Olson.
Fellow award winners Lay Lay, Hser Leh and Htoo Gay Wah are all Karen and camp refugees and now first-generation Americans whose families escaped persecution in Myanmar.
Lay, 17, a senior at Humboldt High School who ranks third in her class with a 4.62 GPA, came to the Saintly City as a 7-year-old not knowing a word of English and thrust into a vastly different culture and lifestyle.
She remembers helping her father farm at the camp. But he was diagnosed with bile-duct cancer and died earlier this year, leaving behind a wife and five children.
During his final days, he encouraged Lay Lay to stay focused and keep up with her studies.
“Are you leaving now, to do your homework?” he asked his daughter on the last day she saw him conscious.
Lay and her twin sister, Let Let, took on part-time jobs to help out their family with rent and other expenses. Lay also volunteered delivering flowers to patients and helping out at Regions Medical Center until the pandemic halted the work. She helped secure a $5,000 grant this year to help fund a school-supply drive to help out low-income families in the Frogtown area.
Lay has applied to the University of Minnesota and plans to study for a career in emergency medicine.
“This is because I’ve always wanted to work in an environment where I am surrounded by science as well as helping others,” Lay wrote.
Leh and Gay Wah are both seniors at LEAP High School in St. Paul, an alternative school designed to educate recent immigrants in need of English learning.
Leh, who ranks second academically in her senior class, also grew up in a Thailand refugee camp and arrived in Minnesota with her family in 2016.
The culture shock was at times debilitating for a non-English speaker whose family was stripped from their homeland and now had to navigate another world. She did not even know how to turn on the stove in the family’s St. Paul apartment.
She now speaks the language reasonably well and serves as editor and writer for the school’s magazine, Voice of the Dragon. She works part time at a food market and plans to become a registered nurse. St. Paul College, Century College and Bethel University are on her short list of potential schools.
“It’s so nice to help people out,” said Leh, who has completed a certified nursing course.
Fellow refugee Gay Wah is a more recent newcomer, settling here with her parents and seven siblings in 2017. From the age of 7, Gay Wah woke up around 5 a.m. at the camp, preparing breakfast for her younger siblings before heading out to help her father farm the family’s small plot of land. Then came some schooling, followed by hours helping her mother weave traditional clothing to sell.
Other than the farming, she still has pretty much the same routine here in addition to also serving as her parents’ translator and household manager, paying bills and doing most of the grocery shopping while juggling school work.
She also plans to apply to St. Paul College and other local institutions in pursuit of a career in child development or child psychology.
Their challenging life experiences, according to school counselor Deborah Malaga, have helped Leh and Gay Wah adjust and cope with learning a new language, distance learning and the anxiety over the pandemic. Bottom line: They don’t sweat the small stuff and are eager to learn.
“If it’s optional, they are there; if it’s required, they are in the front row, raising their hands and asking questions,” Malaga said. “It’s impressive. No matter what it is, they are motivated.”
So am I by all of them.
Other Optimist Club scholarship award winners:
- Zoe Chinn and Victoria Pekel, Central High School
- Kalid Ali, Como Park Senior High School
- Victoria Lee, Community of Peace Academy
- Kaliana Adriamanajara, Great River School
- Pada Lorpatou and Diamond Thlang, Harding High School
- Safa Idris, Lue Xiong and Mor Yang, Johnson High School
- Kate Moe, Open World Learning Community
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