Shaneil Nelson didn’t have an easy start at Lynn Vocational Technical Institute.
For most of her freshman year, Nelson and her family lived in a shelter in Milford, making her commute to and from school more than an hour each way. Nevertheless, Nelson’s grades never dipped below the A range, said her guidance counselor, Heather Toomey.
One night, after having visited extended family in Lynn, Nelson and her mother missed the last commuter rail train back to Milford. So, they slept at Back Bay Station.
In a scholarship application, Nelson wrote:
There is nothing more petrifying than having to sleep on the wet, cold, hard surface of a train station. With nothing more than dirty newspapers to keep me warm. Hearing the roar of the trains go by, the whispers of passersby and seeing the despairing look in my mother’s eyes made me cringe. It was a look as if she had failed to do her job as a mother; keep us comfortable, safe, and secure. All I wanted to do was scream at her and tell her it’s OK, that we will be OK. Now we are.
Her perseverance touched Bill McDonald, scholarship committee chairman for Lynn’s Friendly Knights of St. Patrick.
“It brought me to tears, reading the story,” McDonald said.
The group awarded Nelson, 18, who graduated from Lynn Tech on Thursday, a $20,000 scholarship she will use to pursue a nursing degree at Boston College. McDonald said it is the largest scholarship the Knights ever have given.
“I think she is just really focused,” Toomey said. “Her family has been at a low, so she knows where she doesn’t want to be, so she works really hard to make a better life for her family.”
Born in Jamaica, Nelson moved to Washington, D.C., when she was 12. About a year later, her family moved to Lynn. Shortly before her first year of high school, the family hit hard times. At the time, the shelter in Milford — 50 miles away — was the closest one to Lynn with space available. She made the long trip to continue school in Lynn because, she said, Lynn felt like home.
The hardest part of being homeless was rushing to meet the car that would take her back to the shelter after school, preventing her from joining extracurricular activities or even lingering to talk with her friends for a few minutes.
“It was pretty hard,” Nelson said. “I just started Lynn Tech, and I wanted to get involved in after-school activities and clubs.”
When her family moved back to an apartment in Lynn near the end of her freshman year, Nelson became involved in athletics, community service, and other extracurricular activities — all while working at Market Basket, becoming a certified nursing assistant, and more recently, working at Phillips Manor Nursing Home as part of her studies.
Being homeless herself once has prompted Nelson to help others. Every Thanksgiving, she volunteers at Brothers Deli in Lynn, which serves holiday meals to people who otherwise might not get one. She also has worked with My Brother’s Table, a soup kitchen in Lynn that serves meals to thousands of people each year.
“It’s important for me to be involved in community service because I see the need for it out there, and it’s good to give back to my community,” Nelson said.
She joined Lynn Tech’s cheerleading and track teams, where she said football and track coach James Runner pushed her athletically.
Runner said Nelson is always up for any challenge, filling in when he needed a substitute for a race she did not typically run and beating out all of the girls and boys in a pushup contest during a preseason workout.
“She has one of those drives that you can’t find in a lot of kids in high school,” he said.
Runner said he and Nelson cried tears of joy in his office when Nelson told him about winning the scholarship, which will be awarded in $5,000 increments over four years.
Toomey, the guidance counselor, said she and Nelson have also developed a close relationship. Nelson will often stop by to chat and will leave notes on Toomey’s whiteboard when she is away from the office.
“She’s a hard worker,” Toomey said. “She’s a caring person. I think she’s going into the right field. She cares about other people.”
Since February, Nelson has been working at Phillips Manor Nursing Home in Lynn as part of her school’s co-operative education program. She helps residents get ready for the day in the morning, and keeps them company.
“I grew up around a family of CNAs, and they helped me realize how wonderful it is to help out older people and people who are sick and in need of help to get better,” she said.
Nelson, who in her free time likes to read mystery books and dance to music in her room, is sad to leave Lynn Tech, where she has found a loving community among her teachers and fellow students. But she also is excited about her next chapter.
Toomey said Nelson is the only Lynn Tech student in her memory to be accepted by Boston College.
“At Lynn Tech, we appreciate having her working hard and her persevering because her story will be one that we’ll be talking about 10 years from now,” Runner said.Julia Preszler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.