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May 1, 2010

Gammie’s promise

CULLMAN — The tiny baby girl lay silently in the neo-natal incubator. Her little body was still curled in much the same position it had occupied in her mother’s womb for the past several months.

     She came into the world two months early; weighing only two pounds, she had little chance of survival.

The doctors warned her family every day that this would be her last. Still, her grandmother patiently sat beside the incubator, caressing the infant, offering her own strength through her gentle touch.

Although a glass panel separated them, she continued to sit there for hours on end, physically bonding with her and sending her messages of hope, encouragement and love. “Hang in there, Little One, you are going to live, and one day you are going to change the world,” she repeatedly whispered against the glass. This was to be both a prophecy and a promise.

And hang in there she did, tough as nails, that baby girl had the tenacity of a linebacker. She had already survived against all odds; her mother was an alcoholic and a drug addict. She had taken little care of her own body, much less the life inside her. That the baby had made it this far was a miracle, one of many in the life that was about to unfold.

For the first nine years of her life, she was alternately taken care of by her grandmother and her mother - when she was able. The rest of the time she fended for herself. “We all thought that my daughter could stay sober and off drugs. We always wanted to give her another chance,” explained Nancy Scott, the baby’s grandmother.

Time after time, the baby’s mother tried and failed to purge herself of the powerful addictions that had plagued her since her high school days. “It started when the doctors were giving her prescription codeine for migraine headaches. They reassured me that it would not harm her,” recalled Scott.

Back then, parents didn’t argue with doctors, so she trusted that he knew what he was doing.

All her life, the little girl had been back and forth between her mother, in Nashville, and her grandmother’s home. There were times when Scott would come to the rescue, finding the child sitting on the bed, alone, with an unconscious mother. They never knew how long she had been sitting there, waiting for her mom to wake up. She always kept the vigil beside her until help came.

As with most children in this situation, the child assumed the role of the mother, caring for both of them when there was no one else around. “I can remember very vividly that my mother would be bouncing off the walls sometimes, or else she would be knocked out cold in her bedroom.”

When she was seven, her mother married. She remembers this as a good time in her life. “He was a kind man who tried really hard to help my mother. But, after her numerous overdoses, and multiple suicide attempts, he just couldn’t take it anymore, and they divorced.”

With the life of a small child in such danger, Scott resorted to drastic measures. She knew that if she didn’t do something, her granddaughter would suffer the consequences, so she sought and was granted temporary legal custody. The last time the child saw her mother there was a family gathering to implore the mother to seek help, again. “I can remember laying my head in her lap, I know she loved me, but she was so sick.”

For a time it seemed that it might have worked. She consented to go into treatment at a prominent Atlanta rehabilitation center. A few days later, she slipped away and disappeared into the vastness of the city. No one has seen or heard from her since 2003.

“The intervention hurt and affected me in both good and bad ways. Many times I cried myself to sleep at night when I realized that my mother was really gone.”

Life with Gammie - as she calls her grandmother- was fun. Gammie, had recently retired from the Birmingham Board of Education, and was newly remarried. They lived in Rome, Ga., and they filled their lives with horseback rides, hiking, biking, and tubing – and of course, there was school - where the little girl excelled in every subject.

“Changing schools was very difficult, but Gammie made everything so much fun that I didn’t have time to be miserable or feel sorry for myself. She filled the hole in my heart,” she said.

“At this point I felt like my job was to build her self-esteem, “ said Scott.

“We discovered that this child, who had never had much in the way of parental attention, was very intelligent and extremely artistic.”

She went into her fourth-grade class not knowing a soul. Her grandmother was worried about her fitting in, but in a short time her peers elected her student of the month.She quickly took on a leadership role, designing the covers of her yearbooks in both the fifth and sixth grades.

She was also gifted with musical ability, and began playing the trumpet and later the French horn in middle school.

In 2004 the family moved to Cullman. Her grandfather, Horace Scott, was originally from this area. She entered the seventh grade here – once again, the new girl. Soon after the move, her grandfather suffered a catastrophic accident, injuring his spinal cord, and sustaining massive internal injuries.

 “He fell from a height of about 30 feet, and was in UAB for four months. Our trusted next-door neighbors took over for me while I was in Birmingham with my husband,” explained Scott. “I would come back to get her on the weekends and we would both go back and sit in the ICU waiting room. I wonder sometimes now if that’s what piqued her interest in a career in the medical field,” she mused.

Maybe there is another reason; her biological father was a physician from Washington, D.C. She hadn’t known him for most of her life, although she had corresponded with her paternal grandmother. At the age of 14, she met her father for the first time, visiting with that side of her family in Dallas. “Gammie and I were invited to meet them. It was a very emotional, poignant meeting. My stepmother is a very warm person. She welcomed me, and we have a good rapport. Because of her acceptance, I now have a relationship with my father. I also have a little brother, Peyton.”

In her junior year, she was selected to attend the prestigious National Leadership Forum in Searcy, Ark.

She joined the high school color guard, becoming captain of the squad for 2009. She also helps to tutor students in math.

Always a straight-A student, she has already received an outstanding scholarship to attend Birmingham Southern, but has many choices. Montevallo and Samford have offered to match some other scholarships if she chooses to attend either of those colleges. Her long-range goal includes becoming an obstetrician. “My plan is to have double major in Chemistry and Biology. Later, I might go into research of some kind.”

She applied for many scholarships. Some of them involved writing essays. One of them required that she write an essay titled, “Overcoming Adversity.” If anyone knew something about adversity, it was this girl. She wrote about her life without a mother, of coming from the darkness of living in the shadow of a drug addict into the healing light of her grandmother’s love. That essay won her $20,000 in scholarship money from the Horatio Alger Association, and an all expenses paid trip to the National Scholars Conference in Washington, D.C.

During the four-day event she attended college prep sessions, listened to esteemed speakers, and participated in ceremonies at the U.S. Supreme Court, the U.S. Department of State DAR Constitution Hall, and met with the other recipients of the award.

Out of 50,000 applicants, she was one of 104 who recently accepted the medal and certificate. “I did the math on that and it’s .208 percent of the applicants who originally applied,” she laughed.

The Horatio Alger Association sponsors the Horatio Alger Scholarship Program, one of the largest need-based scholarship programs in the country. The recipients of this award are outstanding individuals who have accomplished remarkable achievements through hard work, self-reliance and perseverance.

Condoleezza Rice, former Secretary of State, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and Astronaut Buzz Aldren were among other dignitaries who attended the awards ceremony. They took time to speak with the young girl from Cullman who had gotten on a plane not knowing exactly what to expect, “At that point, I didn’t know quite what I’d gotten myself into,” she laughed.

Rice took her aside and spoke with her personally, telling her about attending Birmingham Southern College.

“I’d never experienced anything like this. It has changed my life forever,” said the Cullman High School senior.

“I love Cullman, but I want to see other places,” she explained. “I’ve always wanted to go out and meet new people who wanted to change the world, and I found more than I’d ever dreamed,” she continued.

“There are people who are afraid to stick their toes into the water for fear of change in their lives. Instead of putting a toe into the water, I just want to jump right in,” she exclaimed, her voice filled with wonder and excitement.

In addition to her studies, tutoring, playing in the symphonic band and belonging to the National Honor Society, she also finds the time to volunteer for Comfort Care Hospice, where she has accumulated over 300 hours of community service.

In her last days as a high school student, she contemplates the future and the past. “I know it will be difficult, but I’m ready for the challenge. I’m looking forward to being at college this fall, I don’t expect any problems with being away from home. I’m pretty independent,” she said.

“Of course, I’ll miss Gammie, but I won’t be far away. I’m so grateful to her. I try to show her that I’m not like my mother by trying my best to excel in everything I do. Part of my wanting to go into the medical field is so that I will be able to take care of her later on in her life. I would be nowhere without her, she has always been so wonderful to me.”

Meet your friend and neighbor, Hillary Howze.

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