When Veronica Hickman was in the sixth grade, friends, classmates and neighbors began asking where and why she had moved.
She was embarrassed to tell them she was homeless. Amid a crisis, Veronica and her family had been evicted from their North Side home and had moved to a shelter.
But six years later, Ms. Hickman is on her way to study early childhood development and special education at Edinboro University as one of the Homeless Children‘s Education Fund‘s inaugural Hope Through Learning Scholarship recipients.
“I thought I could win [the scholarship] because I have so much to say,” she explained.
The scholarships, presented Thursday at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium, are intended for students who are or have been homeless in the Pittsburgh area, but have performed well both academically and in extracurricular activities, and hope to use the money for post-secondary education.
Matthew Hill of Stanton Heights and Ms. Hickman of the North Side, both 18, each won a scholarship of $2,500, funded by an anonymous donor. A third applicant, Ebony Dwyer, won $500 as runner-up, but did not attend the ceremony.
Mr. Hill, who will study athletic training and therapy at Clarion University in the fall, said he and his mother left their home in 2010 due to financial and family troubles. They lived with his grandmother, but after she died, they had no choice but to stay with family and friends for a year until Mr. Hill’s mother found a stable job.
Bill Wolfe, executive director of HCEF, opened the awards presentation by congratulating Mr. Hill and Ms. Hickman as not just scholarship winners, but the flagship award recipients.
“We’re counting on you to lead this effort into the future,” he said, speaking directly to the two recipients.
Joseph Lagana, founder and CEO of the nonprofit Homeless Children‘s Education Fund, said that though the awards are new, he had wanted to start a program like this more than 15 years ago, when the organization was formed. He just was not sure how to successfully reach homeless or formerly homeless youth.
“My goal was to break the cycle of poverty,” Mr. Lagana said. “This fits in with the whole mosaic of what I wanted to do.”
This year‘s program received just 10 applications, but Mr. Lagana is excited to see the program grow. He said he hopes to rename next year’s award as an “educational opportunity award” as opposed to a “scholarship” in order to expand its purpose to include funding internships and trade schools.
Carrie Pavlik, HCEF educational services manager and coordinator of this year‘s scholarship program, said the winners stuck out not only for their stories of homelessness, which they related in application essays, but because of their continued community service and involvement.
Both winners said the experience of homelessness was grueling and stressful, but taught them to work hard to achieve their goals. Mr. Hill said he was able to continue performing well by thinking about making his mother — and himself — happy and proud. His mother, Shirley, called her son hardworking and resilient.
“When there were difficulties, he always understood,” she said. “He was never not compassionate.”
Ms. Hickman, asked what advice she would give to students going through tough situations, said to just keep pushing forward, even when things seem hopeless.
“God won’t put [anything] on you that you can‘t handle,” she said.
Wesley Yiin: email@example.com or 412-263-1723. Twitter: @YiinYangYale
First Published July 10, 2014 12:00 AM