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Formerly homeless high school senior gets into 12 universities : 'I was blessed'

Rachel Grumman Bender
Beauty and Style Editor

A formerly homeless high school senior, Brianna Watts, who had been living in a shelter with her mother Bridgette Gibbs, has been accepted into 12 universities.

“I definitely did not expect half of the things that are happening in my life now at this point,” Brianna tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “It’s a blessing.”

But life wasn’t always easy for the teen and her mom, who had struggled with addiction. “Life was good until she was 8 years old,” mom Gibbs tells Yahoo Lifestyle. That’s when Gibbs got laid off from her job. “I had to go home and tell my kids that was my last check,” she says. “That, accompanied with the depression, I started using [drugs]. It kind of spiraled out of control.”

Brianna Watts, a senior at Bronxwood Preparatory Academy, was accepted into 12 universities. (Photo courtesy of Bridgette Gibbs)

However, Gibbs made her kids a promise: “I don’t even know how I’m going to fix this, but I’m going to fix this. I’m going to get clean, and that’s what I did — I got back up. And it was not easy.”

Then they were dealt with another setback: Gibbs’ own mother passed away, and she and her kids were no longer allowed to keep their apartment. “We kind of became homeless then,” Gibbs says. The family had to move into a shelter.

Despite that, Brianna continued to attend high school at Bronxwood Preparatory Academy and pushed herself to do well. “None of my friends knew that we lived in a shelter,” she says.

Brianna Watts as a young girl, around the time she and her mom were living in a shelter. (Photo courtesy of Bridgette Gibbs)

Nine months later, the family was able to move out of the shelter and into supportive housing through the non-profit organization, WIN (Women in Need). To continue to get her life back on track for both herself and her children, Gibbs decided to go back to school herself in 2018, attending classes at Bronx Community College.

“Getting my degree, it feels amazing, but you know what? For my kids to be having their degrees, it’s my world,” Gibbs says.

When it came time to apply for college, Brianna turned to her mother — who had recently gone through the process herself — for help, and WIN offered the family resources, such as counselors to help Brianna with her college applications. Brianna had also spent three years — starting in 10th grade and continuing through her senior year — attending the Fresh Air Fund’s College Connections Program, a mentoring program that helps high school students choose, enroll in, and prepare for college. “They help you with the college process,” she says, including preparing students for the PSATs, SATs, and ACTs and more.

Brianna says the Fresh Air Fund also helped cover some of her college application costs in return for doing community service. Thanks to all of the help Brianna received, she says her college application process was “really smooth.”

The 18-year-old applied to 12 universities, as well as three community colleges. “I got into every one,” Brianna says. “I was really proud of myself. I didn’t expect it.”

Adds mom Gibbs: “We kept opening up all these papers, all these letters, and all these booklets all over the house and she just kept getting them. I was so proud.”

Proud mom Bridgette Gibbs with daughter Brianna Watts. (Photo courtesy of Bridgette Gibbs)

Of course, getting into college is only the first hurdle. The family still needs to find a way to pay for tuition, school supplies, and housing. Fortunately, the family has started to receive some donations from kind strangers, including from Clifford James, a funeral home owner who experienced homelessness in his youth, according to the Daily News. The family also started a GoFundMe to help Brianna with college expenses.

After witnessing her mother’s struggle with drug addiction and living in a shelter, Brianna says she’s “inspired to work hard because I don’t want to make the same mistakes or follow the same path. So it kind of keeps my head on straight.”

Gibbs couldn’t be more excited for her daughter to have this college experience. “I can’t wait for Brianna to go to college,” she says.

“She’s my entire world,” Gibbs says.

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