On New Year’s Day, teenage prodigy Samantha Garvey and her family moved into a homeless shelter on Long Island, wondering what the future might hold after being evicted from their home.
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Less than a month later, Garvey had a roof over her head — in the House of Representatives chamber. The 18-year-old high school senior joined a gallery of political luminaries Tuesday night to attend President Obama's State of the Union address.Video: Homeless teen ‘in awe’ over trip to SOTU (on this page)
“Just being there, it was the craziest feeling,’’ Garvey told TODAY's Ann Curry Wednesday. “Being behind the scenes, you get this perspective that you never dream of having. This is completely once in a lifetime.’’
The 4-foot-11 teen stood tall as the guest of Long Island congressman Steve Israel, who made the invite after her story of reaching the semifinals in this year’s prestigious Intel Science Talent Search made national headlines.
Israel wanted not only to honor Garvey for her perseverance against adversity, but also to raise the question of how a middle-class family of an academic prodigy could fall into homelessness. Garvey’s father lost his job, her parents were in a car accident that left her mother unable to work for nine months, and the family incurred the cost of traveling to El Salvador because of the death of Garvey’s maternal grandmother. They fell behind on the payments on their home in Brentwood, N.Y., and were evicted on New Year’s Eve.
“On the holidays, you’re not celebrating the holidays,’’ Garvey told NBC News. “You’re putting your stuff in storage and looking for a place to live. It’s not really festive. It’s bad.’’
Just days after Garvey and her twin 13-year-old siblings moved into a Bay Shore, N.Y. shelter, Garvey learned she was a semifinalist in the Intel contest. Her 2 ½-year study on mollusks and the ecosystem was selected from entries by 1,839 seniors across 497 high schools and 44 states. Though it was announced Wednesday that she didn't make the finals of the $100,000 contest, her accomplishment has nonetheless earned resounding praise.
“I would say that my research, my science, has been my ticket out,’’ said Garvey, who maintains a 3.9 grade point average. “Throughout all the things I’ve faced, I’ve been able to go to school and get my education, pursue my research and do my studies. That’s been my way out. That’s been able to keep me focused and keep me from going off-track.’’Video: Making a Difference: good things in store for homeless teen
“She has the intellect, she has the drive, (and) she has the determination to succeed no matter what,’’ her science research teacher, Rebecca Grella, told NBC News.
Her perseverance has also been rewarded financially. Garvey received a $50,000 check sponsored by AT&T during her appearance on “The Ellen Degeneres Show’’ last week to be put toward her education. She has applied to Brown and Yale, and looks to continue her work in marine biology.Story: Lottery winner in need of a kidney nearly didn't claim $14.3 million
“I want to keep doing what I’m doing now,’’ she told Curry. “I want to work hard and continue to do my science. Being at the State of the Union last night, I got to meet all these fantastic people, and I just thought, 'I want to do what they do.’ I want to take the policy aspect of it and keep doing that in the future along with the science part of it.’’
While her family is currently still living in the shelter, officials from Suffolk County Social Services have offered them a three-bedroom home through an affordable housing program. Her father is back working as a cab driver, and the Garveys will be reunited with the family dog that was placed in an animal shelter when they were evicted. An anonymous person paid for the 4-year-old pit bull named Pulga to be cared for as the family recovers from their recent turmoil.
"My parents always say 'keep your head up,'" Garvey told NBC News. “If you look down and mope, nothing is going to come out of it. I always took that to heart. I just kept a positive mentality."
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