'Kindred Spirit' gives a gift of learning

By Chris Collins May 31, 2013 09:17 am

S. John Collins / Baker City Herald As Oregon Teacher of the Year, Nanette Lehman, left, was given the opportunity to provide a full tuition scholarship to the University of Phoenix to a person of her choice. She selected Danielle Freese, a graduating BHS senior, for the


By Chris Collins

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Nanette Lehman easily recalls how her pursuit of a college degree was postponed when she and her husband, Tracy, married at a young age and started their family.

Lehman, 45, put her college plans aside while she raised her four children, but always with the intention of someday earning her degree. 

As the 2012-13 Oregon Teacher of the Year, Lehman was given the opportunity to offer a gift to help someone else pursue the goal of higher education that eluded her for so many years.

Lehman chose Danielle Freese, a young mother who she sees as a “kindred spirit,” to receive the gift — a  full scholarship to the University of Phoenix.

Danielle, 18, will graduate Sunday with the Baker High School Class of 2013 and begin working toward a bachelor’s degree in business at the online university in August.

Through the online program, Danielle will be able to pursue her degree while remaining at home with her 3 1/2-month-old daughter, Kendall, and her soon-to-be husband, Stephen Talbot. The couple plan to be married on Aug. 10.

Lehman, who teaches second-graders at Haines Elementary School, was named Oregon Teacher of the Year in November 2012.

 She and the nation’s 51 other top teachers were awarded the “Teaching it Forward” scholarships to present to others during the National Teacher of the Year Conference in January at Scottsdale, Ariz.

“I was a stay-at-home mom for 17 years, but I always wanted that degree,” Lehman said. “If someone had presented me with such a gift I would have embraced that.”

Lehman says she sought advice from co-workers and BHS staff in deciding who to pass the scholarship along to.

Because study at the University of Phoenix won’t provide the traditional college experience some students look forward to, she wanted to be sure whoever received the scholarship would appreciate it.

“I thought long and hard,” Lehman said. “I really wanted to make sure it was somebody it would be a good fit for.”

Lehman’s inquiries led her to Danielle, a hardworking student, softball player and Honor Society member — and a teen mom. 

Lehman said it was apparent in her first meeting with Danielle that she’d found her scholarship recipient.

“I knew very quickly this was someone who was very deserving, and after a little bit of a setback, she just needed a little support,” Lehman said. 

Danielle is still getting used to being chosen to receive such a generous gift, which Lehman estimates is valued at about $75,000. It will cover tuition and fees, including books.

“It’s pretty crazy,” Danielle says. “It’s still hard to take in. This is definitely an emotional time in my life.”

Danielle wrote in an essay required as part of the scholarship award that “the feeling of joy and gratitude overwhelmed me” when Lehman chose her for the honor.

“I know that I will face challenges and I know it isn’t going to be easy going to school and raising a child at the same time,” she wrote. “But I believe that I would face even greater challenges in my life if I didn’t go to school.”

Danielle wrote that she was “very scared and disappointed” in herself when she became pregnant at the beginning of her senior year of high school.

At first, she saw college as an impossibility, she wrote. But, even before she was awarded the scholarship, she had determined that she would do her best to pursue a college degree.

“After much soul-searching, I learned to accept what was happening in my life,” she wrote. “I took responsibility for my decisions and a new determination set in.”

It’s that determined attitude and Danielle’s strong work ethic that drew Lehman to her.

In asking others about Danielle, Lehman said they not only described her as hardworking, but they said she was “driven” and was a person with “a lot of goals.”

“It was an honor for me to be able to offer this to lessen one of her burdens,” Lehman said.

In fact, Lehman says being able to help another person obtain a college degree has been the best part of her honor as Oregon Teacher of the Year, even surpassing her visit with President Obama at the White House last month.

“It really, truly was the best,” Lehman said. “This is the first opportunity I have had personally to truly change someone’s life.

“I’m honored to be the Oregon Teacher of the Year, but to gift that scholarship to Danielle was heart-touching and very moving,” she said.

Danielle credits her parents, Brent and Teresa Freese, with her reputation as a hard worker — a reputation she shares with her six siblings.

Teresa works in the office of Baker Sanitary Service where Brent is the general manager. The couple’s son-in-law, David Henry, who is married to their oldest daughter, Alyssa, is president of the company.

“My husband is just a going machine, and doesn’t believe in letting things slack,” Teresa said. 

“It’s been kind of a joke over the years,” she says lightheartedly, that when others would comment on what hard workers her children were, she wasn’t always sure they were talking about the right children.

“In order to maintain a large family, everyone had to do their part,” she said. “Each person had a very important role in chores. It was a trait we developed. 

“It takes a lot of hard work to keep up on things and my husband and I were always on the same page with that,” she added.

Teresa said she knew when her daughter became pregnant that it would be very difficult for Danielle to watch her friends preparing to go off to college while she remained at home with her baby.

But her mother is confident Danielle will make the best of her situation, especially with the benefit of Lehman’s gift.

“We just felt so grateful and very emotional,” Teresa said. “It seemed like an answer to her situation.”

All seven of their children are highly motivated, she said.

Alyssa, 26, earned a bachelor’s degree from Portland State University; Chanelle, 24, is the operations coordinator at the Community of Adsideo in Portland and is taking courses to work in ministry; Liana Spooner, 23, of Baker City, is a wife and mother of two small children; Valerie Myers, 22, who lives in Ohio is studying English and psychology online through Liberty University and also has a new baby; Trevor, 20, is studying criminal justice at Boise State University; and their youngest, Michelle, 16, is a student at Baker High School.

“We’re a very supportive family,” Teresa said. “We love Danielle very much and we’re happy and excited for this opportunity. She has what it takes to be a success.”

In addition to being a proud mother, Teresa can’t contain her affection for her newest granddaughter as well.

“She is a very sweet baby and we are absolutely in love with that child,” she said.

Lehman hopes to get to know baby Kendall, too, as she offers her support and encouragement to Danielle throughout her college career and beyond.

In the essay Lehman wrote supporting Danielle’s nomination for the scholarship, she said she expects to meet often with the young woman as she works toward her degree.

“She has a strong support group with her family, soon-to-be-husband, and me,” Lehman wrote. 

“Her support team will help her stretch her mind often and applaud her desire to continue learning for her child’s sake.”

The two women have continued to keep in touch over the past few months, and Lehman presented the scholarship to Danielle during the BHS Honors and Awards program May 23.

“I see this as the beginning of a lifelong friendship,” Lehman said.