LYNCHBURG, Va. (WDBJ7)-- Inside the Jerome household, family time is everything.
Sha'Aisha and Sha'Un Jerome are attending college in the fall thanks, in part, to the Beacon of Hope Stay Close, Go Far scholarships.
We meet them on a weeknight. The family of five is crowded around the dinner table playing a lively game of “Apples to Apples.”
Sha’Aisha, 19, keeps everyone in line. She deals the cards and goes over the rules.
Sha’Un, 18, cracks a few jokes as his older sister laughs and corrects him. They are 11 months apart and Sha’Aisha will be quick to remind you that she is the oldest.
Their two younger siblings sit next to them giggling, 17 and 16 years old, respectively.
“They are my everything. Everything I do, everything I try to do is for them,” said Kerry Henry, the siblings' mother.
Henry raised all four children on her own through some trying times. Their father has been in and out of jail for most of their lives. He most recently went away again during Sha’Aisha and Sha’Un’s junior year of high school.
“Some days not being able to take care of them and get them things they need like for school or just making sure they eat ...sometimes it’s hard,” said Henry.
Sha’Aisha and Sha’Un both said that their dad being away did not affect them negatively, but instead helped them to stay focused in school.
Sha’Aisha said one of the things she remembers most about her dad is him sitting at their kitchen table, studying. Their dad always stressed the importance of taking school seriously.
“It wasn’t like a super huge challenge, but obviously not having your dad around could be hard. For the most part we were able to deal with that,” said Sha’Aisha.
The siblings knew they always had each other.
Sha’Aisha and Sha’Un are in the same grade. They went through school together side by side, sometimes even in the same classes.
“He is like a rock. We started middle school together, elementary school, high school together,” said Sha’Aisha, describing her younger brother. “Crutch. That’s what I call him. My crutch.”
They pushed each other through classes, helping each other to graduation, all the while knowing that college was not necessarily in the cards.
“No. Money was always going to be a problem for college and we knew that,” said Sha’Un.
"I mean, I’ve always pushed that...college, college, college,” said Henry. “But I didn’t know how it was going to come about.”
In September, the Beacon of Hope helped answer that question.
The Lynchburg non-profit announced the “Stay Close, Go Far” scholarship, calling it, “Lynchburg’s Promise.”
“It promises a group of kids that if they are successful in high school they can go on and we can help cover their gap,” explained Laura Hamilton, Executive Director of the Beacon of Hope.
The Beacon of Hope raised $5 million from local businesses, philanthropic donors and individuals in the community. The money will be used to guarantee any graduating senior from 2019 to 2024, regardless of GPA or income, the opportunity to attend college.
Stay Close, Go Far scholars can attend community college at CVCC for free or they can receive an $8,000 scholarship to attend a local four-year institution including Liberty University, Randolph College, Centra College of Nursing, Sweet Briar College and University of Lynchburg.
Hamilton said that while $2,000 a year for one of the local institutions might not seem like a lot, most of the students who graduate from the city schools receive state and federal aid. The students are usually left with a gap of about $2,000 to $3,000.
“It’s the difference maker. It’s how you can go to college when you wouldn’t have been able to otherwise,” said Hamilton.
The team at Beacon of Hope started fundraising in 2013 for the scholarships. Hamilton said that the city’s high poverty rate helped bring a sense of urgency to the project.
“With a 24 percent poverty rate, this community is going to have a really hard time thriving if we do not make investments right now,” said Hamilton. “Our future five years from now starts right now.”
Almost 200 students in the 2019 graduating class are taking advantage of the scholarships, which is a 40 percent increase in LCS graduates pursuing post-secondary options from 2018 to 2019. 70 percent more students are choosing to attend CVCC.
The scholarships also fund technical certification programs.
“We don’t for a second believe that every student should go to college. That doesn’t make sense,” said Hamilton. “We are seeing kids who we are pretty sure would not have made the decision to go anywhere. They are starting at CVCC, getting their certifications. That’s huge.”
Included in the 199 scholarship recipients are Sha’Aisha and Sha’Un.
“Stay Close, Go Far means an opportunity for my children,” said Henry. “They are going to excel and they are going to do better than I’m doing. It just makes me happy and proud to know that my kids are going to make something of themselves. They already are.”
Sha’Aisha is receiving a Commonwealth scholarship from the Beacon of Hope. She will attend Virginia Tech in the fall to study neuroscience.
“It’s really nice that they can just totally give their all to someone that they never met and just believe in you,” said Sha’Aisha, speaking about the donors.
Sha’Un is using the scholarship to attend Liberty University’s Aviation program. He said he wants to own his own business one day and earn a lot of money so that he can help to make sure his younger cousins go to college as well.
While Sha’Aisha will be quick to remind you that she is the oldest sibling, Sha’Un is quick to tell you that he will be the first in his immediate family to attend college. He starts school one week before his sister.
“I am setting an example. I am going to be a role model….for a week,” Sha’Un said, laughing.
Move out day won’t be easy for anyone in the Jerome house. Henry said it will be hard to say goodbye to her two oldest children. It will be the first time Sha’Un and Sha’Aisha are apart.
But they know they have a very strong foundation to build on.
“They have excelled. They did it,” said Henry. “And they are still going to do it."