Va. 1st-grader's poster wins $4,000 scholarship Family, in hard times, had spent college fund savings to buy groceries

March 08, 1998|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

HAMPTON, Va. -- For the Johnson family, the last 12 months have seemed like a time without hope. They lost jobs, clients and relatives. And though both parents had tried to start saving for their first-grade son's future education needs, they ended up spending his college fund on grocery bills and monthly payments.

Their son, Colin, had no idea.

He was busy dreaming of becoming an astronaut, or maybe a jet propulsion engineer. After spending part of his summer at NASA's space camp and taking classes for gifted students at Hampton University, Colin was thinking ahead.

"I really love space," said the 6-year-old. "I really want to be a space person when I grow up - like when I'm 25 years old or something like that."

It wasn't long after making his decision that Colin set out to finance his college education in space exploration. He embarked on a path that would eventually win him a one-year scholarship from the Virginia Prepaid Education Program. When he saw a television promotion for a statewide poster contest sponsored by VPEP, he immediately wanted to enter. So he coaxed his flu-ridden mother out of bed to take him to the library for a contest application by reminding her that she was the only one between the two of them who could drive.

"I said, 'Mom, let's go! Let's go!' I said it about a million times," he recalled.

Colin's mother, Heidi Johnson, stepped out in her pajamas and took her son to the library.

She doesn't remember much about the trip, though. She only remembered her son pleading, "Mom, my future depends on this!"

Colin drew five drafts of his poster, which had to depict what he wanted to be when he grew up.

He chose the best - the one of him and his two friends on the surface of Mars with Jupiter, Saturn and Earth in the background. (You can't see the second friend in the picture because he's still inside the space capsule giving Colin a push out the hatch.)

Colin sealed up his contest entry and kissed it goodbye the day it was due.

A few weeks later, Colin's mother was on her knees, praying for some relief. Money was still tight and her husband was feeling guilty about the family having spent money from Colin's college fund.

Monday morning that week, Heidi Johnson got a call from the governor's office. Her son had won a one-year university contract, valued at about $4,000. Colin's artwork was considered the most outstanding among first-graders.

"I just broke into tears," Johnson said. "I was so happy. It was like God was listening to me, I tell you."

Colin was so surprised that he fell in the middle of the school hallway after his mother came to school with the news. He said he was looking forward to going "where all sorts of big kids go and learn."

And it will be upward and onward from there.

"I'll start out with the moon," he said. "Then maybe Mars, then maybe Jupiter."

Pub Date: 3/08/98

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