First published in The Record on June 23, 2017
She was shy and Poor. Then She decided to save her family.
On this day, the proudest day of her life, Tara Mott rehearsed her high school valedictory speech in her bedroom in the house on Hobart Avenue where the mortgage payment is three weeks late. She zipped her white nylon graduation gown over her white strapless dress and ate an Italian sandwich from a food pantry.
Mott’s father, Patrick, is looking for a job. Her mother, Donna, works as a grocery store cashier for three hours and $27 a day, which is not enough money to buy food.
With her gown and dress zipped up, her two valedictory medals looped over her neck, and her blue sash from the National Honor Society draped over her shoulders, Mott, 18, walked outside. She climbed into her father’s gold minivan and rode to Manchester Regional High School, a mile away.
She carried a sheet of paper with her speech printed on it. In her mind she carried a plan: She will save her family by saving herself.
“I got involved to do whatever I could do to help them,” Mott said, looking at her parents. “I had to be the strongest person out of everyone.”
Mott’s strength is quiet. You have to know her to see it, and you have to know how far she’s come. As a sophomore, she was the shyest girl in school. Every conversation made her face blush bright red.
“When I met her, in September of her freshman year, she was very shy,” said David Sposato, Mott’s high school guidance counselor.
Three years later, on Wednesday evening, Mott stood in the middle of Manchester High’s football field and gave a speech to 1,500 rowdy, screaming teenagers and parents. She won the title of valedictorian by taking enough Advanced Placement classes to graduate with a grade-point average of 4.523, the highest in her school. She performed four roles in “The Wedding Singer,” this year’s school play. She joined the French club, sang in the school choir, served as the student representative on the Manchester Regional school board, helped to organize a school music festival, mentored elementary school students, helped local food pantries and volunteered with the Freemasons.
“I didn’t know her until this year,” said Dr. Richard Ney, the high school’s principal. “I think getting herself involved is what really turned her life around.”
Actually, the change came earlier than that, and more quietly.
Her parents were newly unemployed. Mott noticed the change in their conversations. Their choice was no longer between a vacation to Disney World or the Shore. Now it was whether to stop paying for cellphones or cable TV.
These overheard conversations presented Mott with a choice of her own. She could remain shy, and watch her parents struggle. She could go hungry. She could watch her younger, autistic twin sisters lose their home.
Or she could force herself to talk. Maybe, if she talked to the right people, someone would give her family some food. Maybe someone could help her get into college, and help her win scholarships to pay for it.
“In order for me to do something, I knew I couldn’t be stuck in that bubble,” she said. “I couldn’t do it alone. That’s why I started socializing. I knew I needed help.”
Food came first. Mott volunteered with a food pantry in Prospect Park and with the Freemasons, all of which helped her family of five supplement the $400 they received every month in food stamps.
Donna Mott said she had no experience with food pantries “because this had never happened to anyone in my family before.”
“Then Tara talked to her guidance counselors,” she said, “and they found out how bad we were struggling, and all of a sudden the food pantry came to us.”
School came next. To compete for college scholarships, Mott knew she had to boost her GPA by taking advanced classes. Each course costs $100, however, and her parents couldn’t afford to pay.
So Mott baked cookies. She crafted flowers out of duct tape, and made tiny sculptured figurines out of FIMO clay. She took her wares to craft and antique shows and sold them.
“I was too young to get a job, but I needed money so I could take these college classes,” Mott said. “I baked a lot of apple pies.”
Mott’s volunteer work helped her qualify for college scholarships from the Haledon School, which she attended from kindergarten through eighth grade, and the Haledon Police Department, plus a full-ride scholarship to Arcadia University in Pennsylvania, where she plans to study actuarial science.
“She asked for help, and she got it,” said Emmanuel Rodriguez, Manchester High’s discipline officer. “She’s been through a lot this year, and she never gave up.”
Mott can’t fix her family’s crisis yet. For years, her father drove 150 miles round trip every day to work as a carpenter for his brother’s company, building homes in South Jersey. The work barely covered the mortgage, gas and tolls, so the family still relied on charity and government aid for food and medical care.
Last month, Patrick fell on a construction site and broke two ribs. Then his brother fired him.
As Tara prepared her valedictory speech, her family sank closer to financial ruin.
“We’re close to losing the house,” Donna Mott said. “It scares the daylights out of me.”
Tara Mott worries too. She has no money to buy books and a computer for college. She applied for jobs at two grocery stores and a frozen yogurt shop, she said, but wasn’t hired because she plans to leave for college in the fall.
“I have nothing,” she said. She started to cry.
In a little while she cheered up enough to invite some friends over. Four boys arrived. Together they lay on their bellies in the middle of the Mott’s living room and played Life, the board game. Tara played the banker.
Standing behind her daughter, Donna Mott noticed the answering machine’s blinking light. She hit “play.” A man with the Haledon Parent-Teacher Association had called to offer Tara a scholarship.