It has been a little more than a month since Anderson Combs dove into Spring Bayou and came up with the sacred Epiphany cross and the blessings that are said to come with it.
Combs, 17, was one of 49 boys, ages 16 to 18, to vie for the cross during the annual Epiphany celebration in Tarpon Springs — an event that symbolizes John the Baptist's baptism of Jesus Christ. Combs is the third parishioner from St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Port Richey to retrieve the cross.
Those close to him can attest to Combs' typical sunny outlook. Even so, life is looking brighter these days for the Hudson High School senior.
"He does seem a little different now," his mother Anna said. "He's kind of walking a little taller now."
"It's subtle things. People are nicer to me. I get recognized now," said Combs, adding that one pleasantly surprising highlight was receiving a handwritten note from state Rep. Amanda Murphy.
Topping that is the official acceptance letter from Saint Leo University that came in the mail last Saturday.
If Combs is walking on air, so are his parents, Keith and Anna Combs.
"My husband and I didn't go to college, and we always wanted more for him," Anna Combs said. "It's such a big year for him. He's graduating. He's going to college. He's the cross retriever, and that's going to follow him for the rest of his life."
Saint Leo University looks to be a good fit. Combs, who plans to study mechanical engineering and hopes to compete on the school swim team, likes the small class size of the private university.
"It's close to home," he said. "It's a beautiful campus."
Giving him a boost is a scholarship from the Pasco Education Foundation's Take Stock in Children Pasco program. Combs was accepted into the program for high-risk students after writing an essay about his academic struggles in elementary school.
"I had trouble reading. I wasn't really focused," he said, adding that his parents paid for extra tutoring throughout his elementary years.
Since then, Combs has kept his end of the Take Stock in Children contract he signed — to have good grades, good attendance and good behavior in and out of school. In exchange, he gets a $10,000 Florida pre-paid scholarship to be paid out over four years.
Combs set challenges for himself, taking honors classes at Hudson High and dual enrollment classes through Pasco-Hernando State College. He met regularly with a Take Stock in Children college readiness coach. Then there was his mentor, Anthony Koubek, a Take Stock in Children scholar and 2011 graduate of River Ridge High. As a current Saint Leo student, he helped feed Combs' desire to go further, offering steady encouragement as well as tours of the school.
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Combs also volunteered alongside his father and other scholars with Habitat for Humanity. He found volunteer work he could relate to as a member of Hudson High's Teen Trendsetter outreach program. Each Thursday afternoon, Combs and other members of the program walk to the adjacent Northwest Elementary School to help younger students with their reading skills.
"Since I had help when I was younger, I wanted to help," he said. "I understand the struggle. I understand the frustration of having problems with reading."
"Anderson has always been a very dedicated scholar for our program," said Kayla Conologue, Take Stock in Children program coordinator and former college readiness coach. "He set high academic goals. He is a well-rounded student (participating) with the swim team, student government and then employment as a lifeguard, as well. He's just a motivated student — serious minded but still approachable and very personable."
Recent statistics bode well for the future of Combs and other scholars.
If all goes according to plan, Combs will be one of 47 Take Stock in Children scholars to move on to college for the 2016-17 school year.
According to Rosanne Heyser, executive director of Take Stock in Children Pasco, 96 percent of the program's scholars graduated from high school in 2014-15.
"That adds to graduation rates for Pasco County schools because we are dealing with at-risk students," Heyser said. "But what's really impressive is that 96 percent of them also enrolled in post-secondary education."
The help doesn't stop at high school graduation, Heyser said, adding that the program continues to work with students throughout their college years, many of whom, like Combs, will need more scholarships and financial aid to succeed.
"It's such a blessing to know that we had something to start his college fund, which is just amazing in itself," Anna Combs said. "To know that he might qualify for more scholarships and grants has really taken the worry off."
Contact Michele Miller at email@example.com. Follow @MicheleMiller52.