Homeless dad's message of hope: 'Never give up'

Jan. 25, 2012 at 9:45 AM ET

How do you encourage your children to follow their dreams, even when you've fallen on hard times as a parent? Leo Garvey knows a lot about that. His daughter, Samantha, was named a semi-finalist in the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search for her marine biology research, even as their family was being forced into homelessness.

The Garvey family motto: Stick together. From left: 13-year-old Kenny, dad Leo, 13-year-old Erika (Kenny's twin), 18-year-old Samantha, and mom Olga.

Samantha's story has propelled her into the national spotlight. On Tuesday, she attended the State of the Union speech, and on Wednesday she appeared on TODAY, with her proud papa watching from the wings.

"Sometimes it brings tears to my eyes to see her," Leo Garvey told TODAY Moms in a green-room interview. "I'm just so happy they are reaching their goals."

He and his family were evicted from their Long Island, NY home on New Year's Eve after falling behind on rent. They had to leave most of their possessions, and give up their dog to the pound. Samantha's mother, a nurse's assistant, was out of work for eight months after being injured in a car accident in February, and Leo couldn't make ends meet despite working 100-hour weeks as a cab driver. The family is now living in a homeless shelter as they wait for rent-subsidized county housing to become available. (A kind stranger stepped forward to take care of their dog until they can be reunited.)

Even as their finances got desperate, Leo says he and his wife always encouraged their children to study hard and pursue their goals.

"I was a high-school dropout, and I tell them, 'You don't want to end up like me, with a nowhere job,'" Leo said gruffly. "I like to see them do better, have better."

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Samantha told TODAY that her scientific research helped get her through the hard times; and she remembered her parents' message to her. "My parents, they always said, "Keep your head up. If you look down and you just mope, nothing's gonna come out of it.' And I always took that to heart. And I just kept a positive mentality."

Samantha has learned that she's not actually a finalist for the Intel competition, but just being a semi-finalist has expanded her horizons. She appeared on the "Ellen" show, where she received a $50,000 college scholarship from host Ellen Degeneres. On Wednesday's TODAY show, she proudly held on to her State of the Union speech copy autographed by President Obama.

But no one could be prouder than her dad, who says anyone who's ridden in his cab in the past 18 years has heard all about Samantha and his two other children, 13-year-old twins. Many more offers of financial help have come forward, but Leo says he has turned them down, saying all his family really needs is a house: "A lot of other people out there have it a lot harder. At least we're both still working. And we have each other, as a family."

After watching his daughter win national acclaim for her smarts and persistence, Leo is now looking forward to seeing her off to college -- well, maybe with some mixed feelings. To him, she'll always be his miracle baby: She was a 2-pound, 14-ounce preemie at birth.

"I remember the first day she got on the school bus to go to school," he said. "I started to tear up, and she turned around and said, 'Don't cry, daddy, I know karate.'"

For all the parents out there who are struggling to keep their heads above water and stay positive for their children, Leo has a message: "Never give up. Stay together as a family. It's tough sometimes, you're at each other because of all the financial stress, but stick together and keep encouraging your children. It does get better. Sometimes it doesn't feel like it will, but it does."