Ardavia Lee lost her mother Ardythe Hope more than two years ago.
Hope was one of three Wilmington firefighters who died of injuries she sustained while fighting a row home blaze in the Canby Park neighborhood.
Despite that loss, Lee found the strength to excel academically and as an athlete, her family and teachers say.
On Monday, Lee was awarded a $25,000 Bridging the Dream scholarship from Sallie Mae. More than 874 U.S. students applied for the annual award given to academically successful students who have overcome adversity. Lee, the first Delaware student to receive the honor, is one of seven recipients this year.
During an event at the Chase Center in Wilmington, a surprised Lee hugged her family and members of the Wilmington Fire Department.
“It means a lot to me, and I can further my education,” said the St. Elizabeth High School senior. “Before my mom died, we were struggling, and I might have been pulled out of St. Elizabeth’s. So with this money, I don’t have to worry about anything like that again, and I can help my family and further my education.”
Wilmington Fire Chief Michael Donohue said the scholarship means a lot. The firefighters, who have known Lee since she was a child, have attended her basketball games and provided support since her mother’s death.
“If you’ve ever had any exposure to fire departments, they are a very close-knit group,” Donohue said. “She suffered a tragedy, but the fire department is her extended family. We are extremely proud of her and know she’s going to succeed.”
Shannan Beck, director of school counseling at St. Elizabeth’s, nominated Lee for the national honor. Lee has completed more than 100 hours of community service in the last three years, maintains a 3.94 GPA, and plays volleyball and basketball.
“For everything she’s had to deal with, she’s one of the most positive people I’ve ever met,” Beck said. “Every day I look forward to see her. If you didn’t know her situation, you would never know it by meeting her. She doesn’t carry that, she doesn’t dwell on it, she just looks to her future … and every day brings a smile and positive attitude to everything she does.”
Lee is awaiting university acceptance letters — her first choice is Spelman College. She wants to study political science as an undergraduate and then go to law school.
Lee said she has a message to any young person who has lost a parent.
“When it happened to me, it was a major setback, but I had to persevere,” she said. “And I just want everyone to know it gets better. My support system makes the entire situation a lot better.
“I just want everyone to know they’re not alone, people out there do love them and can help them get through it.”