International Baccalaureate 12th-grader Benjamin (Ben) Carpenter thought he was coming to the meeting room at King High School to talk with an advisor about college.
But when the door opened and his friends and family threw confetti on him, Ben said he knew something else was up.
“That was very surprising,” he said.
Ben, 17, is the winner of a Leaders 4 Life Fellowship from the Take Stock in Children program. In Hillsborough County, Take Stock in Children is supported by the Hillsborough Education Foundation, which surprised Ben last week with the fellowship.
The Leaders 4 Life Fellowship recognizes leadership skills, moral character and academic success. In addition to leadership training and professional development, Ben will also receive up to $10,000 annually to cover the costs of housing, food, textbooks, supplies, transportation and other college-related expenses for attending a four-year public university in Florida.
“For me, it means my college goals are almost completed,” he said. “Instead of worrying about funds, this is going to make it much easier on the family.”
Ben’s parents, Jim and Tari Carpenter, and his grandparents, Kenneth and Joyce Fitch, were at the surprise celebration at King to celebrate the achievement.
“I think he’s they type of kid everybody wants to have,” Tari Carpenter said. “He has a good sense of people who are in need because a lot of people have helped him.”
Ben was born with spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic disorder that forces him to use a wheelchair. But he hasn’t let that hinder his drive to achieve.
- He leads the Tampa Thunder power wheelchair soccer team.
- He founded Ben’s Mends, a nonprofit that refurbishes books and donates them to other nonprofits that help women and the elderly.
- He was the first person honored as a Lightning Community Hero in 2011 by the Tampa Bay Lightning Foundation.
- He was a finalist in the U.S. Army – Pro Football Hall of Fame Award for Excellence.
- He’s a patient ambassador for Shriners Hospital and a student ambassador for Junior Achievement.
- He’s a member of the National Honor Society, the French National Honor Society, the Beta Club, the World State Club and a committee member for Relay for Life.
- He’s never received any grade less than an “A” and has an SAT score of 2120.
“He wants people to come away from him saying, ‘You’re not the person I thought you were going to be,’” Jim Carpenter said. “…It’s incredible that someone is recognizing him and everything he’s done.
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Ben is one of five students in the state who won the Leaders 4 Life Fellowship and will be recognized during Take Stock in Children’s annual State Leadership Conference, March 6 and 7 in Tallahassee. Approximately 75 students applied for the honor, and they were narrowed down to 12 finalists, said Marilyn Fashano, state director for Take Stock in Children. Ben was the first student from Hillsborough County to ever become a finalist.
Pat Wharton, a student advocate with the Hillsborough Education Foundation, has known Ben since 2004 when he received a four-year university tuition scholarship from ChairScholars through the foundation.
“I had decided last year that when he became a senior, we were going to put him up for the award,” Wharton said. “He represents what Leaders 4 Life is.”
“There’s just something about him that draws you to him,” she added. “And even though he’s in a wheelchair, you don’t see the chair; you just see Ben.”
As a Hillsborough Education Foundation scholarship recipient, Ben has a mentor who makes sure he stays on track academically. Jerry Siford, a student at the University of South Florida, has been Ben’s mentor since January 2012.
“He’s so on top of everything,” said Siford, 20. “He’s always applying for a scholarship. It makes me wish I was that focused. He deserves everything he gets.”
Ben plans to study mechanical engineering at the University of Central Florida where he’s been accepted into the Honors College. He said he’d like to be an Imagineer for the Walt Disney Company.
“It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do since I was old enough to ride my first ride,” he said.
And, according to his friends and family, Disney will indeed have a new Imagineer once Ben finishes college.
“There’s nothing he can’t do,” Wharton said. “He doesn’t let anything stop him.”