A down economy hasn't meant a downturn in humanity.
Just ask Gina Bean. She is 27 and lives with her folks in New Port Richey. She's out of a job, couldn't pay the cell phone bill and is at risk of losing her car.
She also is a college student, taking just one class this summer semester at St. Petersburg College in Tarpon Springs, two nights a week for 10 weeks to knock off the three-credit-hour requirement for speech communications. Bean wanted to take intermediate algebra and humanities, but got shut out of the classes. That turned out to be impetus for a class full of 27 strangers bonding together to help a fellow student.
Bean, a Ridgewood High graduate, already had been to Americare School of Nursing in St. Petersburg where she learned how to be a medical assistant and X-ray technician. She worked in a doctor's office and had ambitions to become a physician's assistant. She planned to get her associate of science degree and later a bachelor's degree in bio-medical science. She figured her federal Pell Grant would cover many of the costs.
Except the grant requires full-time enrollment and being shut out of two classes meant Bean's didn't qualify this summer session. She didn't find out until the last week of June, the seventh week of the 10-week period. The technical term is "administratively withdrawn'' for unpaid tuition. It is the equivalent of being evicted for not paying the rent.
Bean hoped to try to scrape together the cash, but fate had other plans. She lost her job the next day and the $262 tuition cost was beyond her reach.
The class schedule called for Bean to give a speech on Wednesday, June 30. On that Monday, she asked classmates if somebody wanted to switch so she could present two days earlier.
Somebody asked, Why?
I might not be back on Wednesday, Bean told her colleagues.
Then why do you want to give your speech?
I'm prepared. I did a good speech and I want to give it, she told them.
"I think that created a lot of respect,'' said Peg Mahara, the instructor for Business and Professional Speaking.
Bean presented on pill mills, the pain medication clinics that enable prescription drug abuse. She talked about the deaths of two Palm Harbor University High students in May. Mahara called it powerful. Bean got an A.
Two nights later, about 10 minutes before class started, Mahara huddled with a student working on a speech outline as eight to 10 students trickled in.
Is Gina coming back?
Mahara shook her head. No.
Is it about money?
Mahara nodded, still bent over the student's outline.
Mahara looked up. What?
The voice came from Rick Shaw, a 54-year-old St. Petersburg Police sergeant. He's in the class, too, and wants to earn his bachelor's degree so can possibly teach after retiring.
"Call her. I'll take care of it.''
Then others chimed in.
"I'll chip in.''
It stunned their teacher.
"This spirit kind of emerged saying, 'Let's get her back,' '' said Mahara. "This is incredible. I've been teaching for other 30 years and I've never had anyone volunteer to pay another student's tuition.''
Indeed. The students had gathered 14 times — two evenings a week for seven weeks — but Bean's circumstances turned former strangers into a community.
They called Bean and arranged for her to use Shaw's debit card number the following day to pay her tuition. Others in the class pledged donations to Shaw so he wouldn't absorb the cost exclusively.
"Nothing like that had ever happened to me,'' Bean said later. "It gave me a ray of hope to push forward with what I wanted to do in life.''
She returned to class July 7 and after the group hug she promised to pay it forward. Someday, she said, she will do a similar deed for someone else. In the meantime, she might enroll in the U.S. Navy to advance her education, but helping people, especially the elderly, is what she wants to do with her life.
Class ends July 21. There is one more assignment. Students must give a speech that is a tribute to someone or something.
Bean has her topic. Her speech is about her classmates.