- Associated Press - Sunday, June 7, 2015

AIKEN, S.C. (AP) - Surely all the people who have met Aiken High School senior Leanne Summers get the same impression - she’s a charming, engaging young woman with a vivid smile that never seems to disappear.

Yet behind her friendly smile is a fierce determination, that intangible known as steel. Summers will graduate on Friday as the fourth-ranked senior in her class, heading to the University of North Carolina with prestigious scholarships to study pharmacy.

Her life has included poverty, isolation and unspeakable tragedy. Fourteen years ago, Summers was at home with an older sister and her mother when a man shot her mother to death.

She has only some fragmented memories of Susie Marie Bookman - such as times when her mom took her along to her job at Dollar General. Even as a 4-year-old child, Summers realized her mother would never wake up or ever see her daughter grow into adulthood. As she prepares to finish high school and move on to college, Summers feels that loss more than ever.

As part of a UNC admissions process, she was asked to write an essay about “how you do what you do.”

“I have an obsession to do well,” Summers said. “That’s the biggest drive for me - that I want to be the best daughter ever. My mother is the reason for this, and I know she would be proud of me.”

After moving in with an aunt, Summers knew only isolation until she started kindergarten at Oakwood-Windsor Elementary School. To the surprise of her teachers, the little girl immediately blossomed - shy but exceptionally bright. By the end of her third-grade year, Dr. Alice Sheheen, the principal, suggested that Summers skip the fourth grade.

“But I couldn’t do double-digits in math, so I told Mrs. Sheheen I wouldn’t (skip the grade),” Summers said with a grin during a recent interview. “I was calling the shots back then. It was about survival, so I’ve been independent a lot of my life. I felt nerdy then, and I was gratified to know I could do things very quickly.”

Summers adored her fifth-grade teacher, Stacey Waugh, who was then in her first year of teaching. Waugh found the child so special and still has Summers’ photograph on her classroom wall. Over the weekend, the teacher was ecstatic to learn of Summers’ academic success.

“She had to grow up young and take charge of her own life,” Waugh said. “She really is a wise old soul.”

Summers moved in with another aunt, Cora Summers, during her eighth-grade year. Despite limited resources and three grown children she raised, her aunt has supported her, and Leanne is grateful they make financial decisions together. Five year ago, her aunt “even let me do the cooking,” Leanne said with a laugh. “It was like adult boot camp.”

In middle school, Summers began to connect with other students - making friends through the gifted and talented program and even portraying the “Gator” at Aiken Middle School basketball games. Before starting high school, Summers joined the band as a color guard member. She credits her aunt for making both opportunities possible.

For the young woman, high school has been a joy. Her teachers have been supportive, as has her guidance counselor Linda Strojan. Summers and her friends have pushed each other - engaging in friendly competitions over making the top grades in each class.

She and classmate Carly Downs have been best friends since taking classes together as juniors. Downs has heard a lot of the challenges of Summers’ life and marvels at how her friend has dealt with them.

“Leanne doesn’t show that in her personality,” Downs said. “People will say she’s the most amazing person they’ve ever met, and she’s also the brightest person I’ve met. She is going to big places, and nothing will keep her from it. It’s so special to be her best friend.”

As a sophomore, Summers heard other students talking about college. She began to consider the health field, thinking of her mother and needed medication for health issues and other family members who had sickle cell anemia. For other reasons, as well, Summers selected pharmacy, specifically in a hospital setting.

But where would she go to college? Strojan had gotten to know Summers; and she, too, was impressed with the young woman’s self-reliance. Summers is glad the counselor didn’t say outright that she had to go to USC or Clemson, or any smaller schools. Summers had searched schools online and felt that UNC was everything she wanted.

The money, of course, remained a key factor, and Strojan started searching for the best financial situation. Some colleges offered scholarships, but they weren’t enough. Summers still wanted “to reach for the stars” as long as possible.

The James F. Byrnes Foundation Scholarships program was established in 1949 by the late South Carolina governor, U.S. senator and congressman. The scholarships are available to outstanding students in the state who have lost a parent, and just seven seniors are awarded the scholarship each year.

Remarkably, Aiken High has two of those recipients - Summers and Jamilynn Flores. Summers also received two other scholarships - the Watson-Brown Scholarship and an Aiken Rotary Club grant. UNC will help out as needed, ensuring that Summers will graduate without debt.

Strojan marvels that Summers is never afraid to take the next step. She isn’t intimidated, Strojan said, but is brave and courageous, “and I want to see her fly.”

Summers said she treats every experience as an opportunity. She found the Byrnes interview process especially poignant.

“I didn’t feel out of place,” she said. “The interviewers themselves had lost parents. All of us were united by tragedy.”

___

Information from: Aiken Standard, http://www.aikenstandard.com

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