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What we can all learn from formerly homeless teen Samantha Garvey

By Rehema Ellis
NBC News


Samantha Garvey, the homeless teen who was a semifinalist in the prestigious Intel Science competition, told me this week her mother "has been crying a lot."  But unlike when the family was evicted from their home on New Year’s Eve, now she says it’s tears of happiness. After the news broke about how Samantha, 18, was able to stay focused on her studies even as her family was mired in turmoil, there has been an outpouring of admiration for her.  She attended the State of the Union address, appeared on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” and on “TODAY.”  Plus, there have been several offers to help her pay for college expenses. 

What I learned this week from Samantha’s teachers and guidance counselors, however, is that this young woman who seems so poised in front of all the cameras did have moments when she struggled. 

“She was always worried about her family.  She was always worried about her brother and sister and the stress it was putting on them,” said Karin Feil, Samantha’s Brentwood High School guidance counselor.

Like any other senior, Feil told me, Samantha wondered, “‘How am I going to pay for prom? How am I going to get my yearbook? What about my class ring? What about my school pictures?”

Feil said there were times when Samantha wanted to cut back on her studies and just get a job to help support her family. She  decided to stick with her first job, which is school,  hoping that somehow her needs would be answered. 

Still, it’s been tough. 

Despite the fact that both her parents have jobs (Samatha's father is a cab driver, and her mother is a hospital worker), they’re part of America’s working poor.  A few family hardships left them unable to keep up with the bills and they ended up homeless.  

“My parents, they always said, ‘Keep your head up. If you look down and you just keep moping, nothing’s gonna come out of it.’ And I always took that to heart. And I just kept a positive mentality,” Samantha told me.

It’s a remarkable story of perseverance. 

But even as we’ve celebrated Samantha, we haven’t heard much about the many other families who are just like hers.  According to the latest figures from the Department of Housing and Urban Development an estimated 567,340 families were living in shelters in 2010. More than 141,600 children were in shelters on a single night.

Once a family loses its home, finding another one can be difficult. Often landlords want the first month’s rent along with the last month and a security deposit. 

Samantha’s family, however, has gotten help from New York’s Suffolk County Office of Social Services.  The agency offered them an affordable house through a regular county program that helps about 40 families every month move out of shelters.  County officials say the need is growing every day.  At some point, Samantha’s family will move on, and the county will use their space to help someone else. But it’s not clear how long it will take the Garveys to regain their footing. 

While there have been offers to help Samantha pay for college, scholarship money cannot be used to pay old family bills. The Garveys have got to figure out a way to clear their debt if they hope to really get back on their feet. 

Meanwhile, Samantha learned this week she was not chosen as a finalist in the science competition.  But the attention showered on this 18-year-old  has given her and her family a much needed boost and every reason to believe they’ve got a winning future ahead.