NEW PORT RICHEY — Always a conscientious student, Gulf High School freshman Jacquelynn Shelton couldn't wait to get home and tell mom Gina and dad Jim that she'd taken her first Advanced Placement exam in world history.
"I remember thinking, 'This is the best day ever,'" the Hudson teen wrote. "As it turns out, (this) was the second-to-worst day of my life. . . . No one was home to celebrate with me. My parents were both at the hospital, my mom being diagnosed with cancer. She had Stage 4 colon-rectal cancer."
Jacquelynn helped care for her mom until her death on Aug. 24. Gina Shelton's legacy encouraged her daughter to excel at her studies and plan her future.
"If I knew I only had a trickling amount of time left with my mom, what was the price of trading time doing one assignment to spending time with her? A grade that upset her," she wrote. "My mom is the one who taught me that education is the key."
Jacquelynn found allies in the Take Stock in Children program, a statewide nonprofit organization that provides scholarships, mentors and educational workshops to middle and high school students in need.
Enrolling in Pasco's Take Stock in Children program in the 10th grade, Shelton — now a 17-year-old Gulf High School senior — is an International Baccalaureate student with a 4.3 weighted GPA.
Now she is one of six Take Stock scholars across Florida, the first in Pasco County, to earn Take Stock's prestigious Leaders 4 Life Fellowship, created in conjunction with the Asofsky Family Foundation.
"A Take Stock student must meet high standards to be considered for Leaders 4 Life," said Rosanne Heyser, the Pasco Education Foundation's program vice president for Take Stock. "Considering who Jacquelynn is, with her academic achievements and the challenges she has overcome, she more than qualifies."
Jacquelynn's Take Stock scholarship funds will total approximately $60,000, including $10,000 per year as a Leaders 4 Life Fellow — funds for textbooks, supplies, housing, transportation, food and other college expenses. She'll become a Take Stock mentor, as well as what Heyser refers to as "the face of Take Stock."
Wednesday morning, she received a surprise visit in Spanish class from Pasco school board members, Gulf High officials, Take Stock representatives and her Take Stock mentors, April Kelly and Steve Griffith.
"As a Leaders 4 Life Fellow," superintendent Kurt Browning said, "Jacquelynn is among the best of the best."
Gulf High principal Kimberly Davis described her winning student in one word: humble.
"Jacquelynn is always the one who makes sure that everyone else is taken care of," she said. "Now, she'll be taken care of."
Griffith, who took over as Jacquelynn's mentor after Kelly's retirement, is also her teacher at Gulf High.
"Her growth is phenomenal," he said. "She's grown to believe in herself."
Jacquelynn is historian of the National English Honor Society and has been a camp and hospital volunteer. She loves poetry, music and is church organist.
"I especially love working with kids," she said. "I want to study medicine at the University of South Florida . . . and then head to Stanford or New York University for their neuroscience graduate program. I want to become a pediatric neurologist."
Steve Page, IB assistant principal at Gulf High, is impressed by his student's success.
"As part of the Take Stock program, she had to answer the question, 'What excites you most about the idea of a college campus?' She didn't mention parties . . . but instead mentioned the chance to advance herself in her area of study," he said. "That maturity and focus is uncommon for someone of her age."
Jacquelynn said she's grateful to the Gulf High and Take Stock in Children staff for their encouragement.
"People believe in me, and the Take Stock scholarship program has given me part of my motivation," she said. "I now have structure and higher expectations for myself. I know I can do it."
When asked at the presentation whom he wanted to thank for his daughter's accomplishment, a teary Jim Shelton said, "My wife. She was the driving force."
In an essay written for the Leaders 4 Life program, Jacquelynn echoed her dad's sentiments.
"I remember what was important to my mom: my future," she wrote. "With her in my memories, I know I can overcome, learn from, and move on after anything, even losing her. I can continue my life, and honor her by doing the things she wanted me to do."
This article has been updated to reflect the following correction: Gina Shelton's first name was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.