HANCOCK COUNTY — It doesn’t take long to see why Hancock County’s 2013 Lilly Endowment Community Scholars, Hallie Wright and Grant Gellert, are among the area’s best and brightest.
The two 18-year-old high school seniors from Eastern Hancock and Greenfield-Central, respectively, were selected by the Hancock County Community Foundation and Lilly Endowment Inc. from a deep field of applicants to receive full-ride college scholarships based on their academic performance and community service.
Quick, effusive and engaged, Wright and Gellert immediately dispel any labels or stereotypes pinned to their generation from some quarters suggesting self-absorption or entitlement.
It is, in fact, their clarity and commitment to issues and ideals bigger than themselves that become immediately apparent.
“I remember in the fourth grade I heard about the Lilly Scholarship and what it represents, and I was just in awe of the people that got it,” Wright said. “It’s a dream come true just having the honor.”
Pretty heady stuff from a fourth-grade farm girl who was probably almost as big then as the goats and pigs she loved to raise.
With her feet firmly planted on the farm, and her family deep in the FFA, Wright said she always knew her life would orbit agriculture.
“I always knew ag would be in my life, but world hunger is such a big thing right now,” she said, and she means to do more about it than sing songs and hang banners.
She will study biotechnology and figure out how to bring food to the world, feeding more with less and more efficiently.
“Feeding the world is a huge issue, and it has defined my future. I’m lucky to know exactly the direction I want to lead my life,” she said.
Gellert’s clarity is no less acute.
Like Wright, he sees more to the scholarship than dollars; it’s the doors that will open and the support he can receive to get where he wants to go, not so much for himself, he says, but for others.
“You’re in great company with previous winners,” Gellert said. “There are networking opportunities, support groups at big universities and great research opportunities.”
Entering Greenfield-Central High School with a mind toward civil engineering, it was Daniel Naegeli’s science class that brought the epiphany.
“He introduced me to all new concepts that really struck home with me,” Gellert said.
So instead of structural steel, Gellert now plans to engineer human genes, pursuing bio-medical engineering in hopes of one day splicing a cure for ectodermal dysplasia, inherited disorders that can affect the teeth, hair, sweat glands and nails.
The condition exists in Gellert’s extended family, and he, like Wright, wants to be part of the solution.
“Maybe I can make a difference,” he said.
He’s not wasting time, already working at Elanco and devoting his senior research project to the topic.
Naegeli, who taught Gellert during his third year of Biomed Academy at G-CHS, said the academy draws top-tier students, and Gellert, who early on was enrolled in both engineering and biomed academies, ultimately came to the front.
“Teaching these (academy) students, I get the cream of the crop in my class,” Naegeli said. “It keeps you on your toes.”
The seniors’ Capstone Project involves “true science,” requiring students to research, design their own experiments and present the results, Naegeli said.
“Grant just excelled. He went above and beyond.”
Along with a lengthy list of extra-curricular activities ranging from sports to academics that begs the question: When do they sleep? Each, perhaps unwittingly, pursued a commitment that says more about who they are than any amount of words.
Consistently devoted to the arts – she pitched a department-saving proposal to the Eastern Hancock School Board one year – Wright spends Wednesday afternoons at Golden Living Nursing Home planning and conducting arts-and-crafts activities for the residents, sometimes helping serve meals and just talking with them if that’s what’s needed.
One resident, a 16-year-old girl involved in an auto accident, was recuperating there and trying to regain the use of her hands and motor skills. Wright helped her hold a pen and draw.
The anecdote is significant not for its singular importance to that particular individual, but rather the matter-of-fact manner in which Wright relates it.
Someone needed help, and she could help.
“She is a very well-rounded individual; she did a good job,” said EH ag teacher Scott Jacobs, who Wright notes as one of her influential mentors. “She concentrated not only on her classroom activities, but her community service is second to none.”
When told that Wright identified him as an influence, Jacobs simply deflected with a laugh.
“To be honest with you,” he said, “The most important thing for us to do was stay out of her way.”
Gellert, as well, found himself pulled toward something that had to be done. For him, the issue was getting books in the hands of kids he was tutoring.
As one might expect, kids with reading difficulties did not like to read as the school year began, but by Christmas, Gellert said, most of that had changed.
“By the middle of the year, they really got excited about reading,” he said.
However, the students who needed books most – “the at-risk” kids – didn’t have books to take home, which is where Gellert stepped in.
He began raising money for a program he started dubbed “My Very Own Books,” purchasing books with the donations and sticking them in backpacks during the United Way of Central Indiana’s BackPack Attack. The annual school supply drive furnishes back-to-school material for students who can’t afford it.
The effort netted $300 worth of books, and Gellert said the initiative is just getting started.
“We’ve purchased 220 books this year and raised over $700 so far,” he said of the effort he hopes will double last year’s results, and he doesn’t plan to let college get in the way.
“I’d like to keep it going and expand it to surrounding counties,” Gellert said. “It’s something I can do to help the kids.”
Gellert and Wright were chosen from a pool of eight finalists, all of whom must be ranked in the top 15 percent of their class with plans to obtain a four-year baccalaureate degree at any accredited public or private Indiana university, said Mary Gibble, president of the Hancock County Community Foundation.
The applicants were reviewed blindly by third-party professional readers from out-of-county community foundation officials. Two students from each of Hancock County’s four public high schools are selected, and the recipients are chosen by a volunteer committee identified by the foundation and submitted to Lilly Endowment for approval.
Community service is the primary factor for qualification as financial need is not a consideration for the scholarship.
The other finalists each receive a $1,000 scholarship to attend any accredited Indiana college or university with the exception Eastern Hancock High School senior Jacob Brown, also a National Merit Scholarship finalist, who has received a full scholarship at the University of Kentucky, where he will study materials engineering, Gibble said.
The other Hancock County finalists are: Claire Hornsby and Sarah Pearson of New Palestine High School; Clara Starkey, Greenfield-Central High School and Nicholas Swift and Matthew Paarlberg of Mt. Vernon High School.