ODESSA — For Benjamin Jason Epps, school can be frustrating.
The senior at Freedom High School can't jot notes as his teacher lectures and can't take a written exam without dictating his answers to an aide. He can't hold a pencil or walk to the front of the class. Math homework can be a nightmare.
Epps has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair.
Despite this, the 18-year-old's weighted grade point average is more than 5.0. He is a member of the National Honor Society and did an internship at James A. Haley VA Medical Center.
He has been accepted to four colleges and has chosen to attend the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago to major in biblical studies and translations.
There's only one problem, and it's not his wheelchair. Epps needs financial assistance to cover room and board at the tuition-free college.
On Saturday, help came for Epps and 33 other Florida students who received scholarships from the ChairScholars Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides financial aid to low-income, physically disabled students.
The foundation, which was started in 1992 by orthopedic surgeon Hugo Keim and his wife, Alicia, held its annual festival and scholarship presentation outside the founders' Odessa home. Speakers included former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris and Bucs player Ronde Barber.
For many of the students, the scholarships provide an opportunity that otherwise may not be available.
Epps' mother, Christine Epps, quit her job as a researcher at the University of South Florida four years ago to become her son's personal care assistant. With a lower salary, which is paid for by Medicaid, the family had to cut down on expenses and savings.
Their family is not alone, said Caroll Vick, the organization's program director. Many families with disabled children need help paying for college, she said.
"Students with disabilities have not only the normal costs associated with going to college but also the additional cost of their care," Vick said. "A lot of students we help need full-time aid to help with day-to-day living."
Americans with disabilities also have the highest rate of unemployment, the highest rate of poverty and the lowest level of education of any minority group, Vick said.
Concerns such as these prompted the Keims, who have their own experiences with disabilities, to start the foundation 19 years ago in New York when Keim was chief of spinal surgery at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital. Mr. Keim earned his medical degree with an artificial eye, and his wife suffered from scoliosis.
To date, the organization has provided more than 700 scholarships of varying values to students across the country.
Joel Post was one of the first recipients. Post broke his neck in a diving accident when he was 19. His meeting with the Keims changed his outlook on life.
"They taught me to look at my disability not as a hindrance but as a stumbling block," Post said. "They didn't give me pity or sorrow, but a lot of inspiration and encouragement."
Post, who is now 40, got a bachelor's degree in accounting from the University of South Florida and is now a manager at a Tampa brokerage firm.
He tries to attend the scholarship presentation each year to connect with the Keims and witness the growth past recipients have made.
"In a way it's a class reunion, seeing their renewed spirits and realizing that life is a victory waiting to be won," he said.
On Saturday, speakers offered words of inspiration to the students. Barber and Morris urged them to continue their paths toward success.
"Don't let this be your best moment," Morris said.
Former recipient Labrawn Saffold, who was paralyzed in a car accident, encouraged the students to never give up. And Iorio offered a reminder that their physical disabilities don't change who they are.
"Life is all about the human spirit and the human soul," she said. "It doesn't know if it is in a wheelchair or not. It doesn't know it has a disability."
Shelley Rossetter can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2442.