published Sunday, May 6th, 2012

Kennedy: Student with autism wins $500,000 Gates academic scholarship

"Success is failure turned inside out,

The silver tint of the clouds of doubt,

And you never can tell how close you are,

It may be near when it seems too far,

So stick to the fight when you're hardest hit,

It's when things seem worst that you must not quit."

-- Author Unknown

This is a story for every parent who is struggling to pull a child with special needs out of the quicksand of low expectations.

If that describes you, or someone you care about, please read on.

Sam Sadowitz, 19, walked into the lobby of the Times Free Press last week and shook my hand, flashing the arm strength you'd expect from a football player who can squat-lift 390 pounds.

"Hi, I'm Sam," he said, standing tall and nodding firmly as if he were placing a period at the end of a sentence with his chin.

Sam graduates from Soddy-Daisy High School this month. He plays football and competes on the school's clay-targets shooting team. He also has built a lofty 3.96 GPA while taking advanced-placement classes in subjects such as calculus and physics.

Sam is a well-rounded guy. He reads books on Civil War history. He's interested in gardening and grows vegetables for poor people. He helps teach a Sunday school class. He wants to study engineering and work for a defense company.

One Friday last month, Sam got a letter in the mail that might turn out to be worth $500,000.

It would be easy to think Sam Sadowitz has led a charmed life based on this windfall, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Sam has autism.

• • •

When Sam was 4 years old, his mother, Rachel Sadowitz, got a call from the director of his preschool. Later, in a conference, the director explained gently to Ms. Sadowitz that she believed Sam had "severe special needs."

Ms. Sadowitz said her first impulse was anger. And why not? Both Sam's twin brother, Phillip, and his older sister, Rebecca, had already been diagnosed with learning disorders, and now she was being told Sam had problems, too. Ms. Sadowitz said it was almost too much for her heart to bear: three kids 13 months apart, three cases of autism.

"I was so focused on his brother and sister, I might not ever have found out [about Sam]," said Ms. Sadowitz, who recently wrote the preschool administrator a letter thanking her for having the courage to reveal Sam's problems to her 15 years ago.

Looking back, all the signs were there. Like lots of kids with Asperger syndrome, a form of autism, Sam was clumsy and sometimes rocked his body and flapped his hands. He had trouble communicating and was socially awkward.

The teachers at the Montessori school where Sam attended elementary grades noted his intense focus and lack of connection to the world around him.

Ms. Sadowitz explained, "The teachers said, 'A bomb could blow up. Somebody could come in with ice cream. But Sammy would never look up.' "

Still, Sam was drawn to knowledge. At the age when his peers were watching "SpongeBob SquarePants," Sam was reading books about the Civil War, Ms. Sadowitz said.

"History, to me, is reading about things that really happened," said Sam, who has a photographic memory for facts. "I've always been interested in military strategies."

• • •

For her part, Ms. Sadowitz never yielded to low expectations for Sam. In fact, her motto is a line from a motivational poem: "Rest if you must, but don't you quit."

Sometimes it was a climb just getting Sam to do normal things. Sam had bad posture, for example. He slumped. Several times a day, his mother would push his shoulders back and remind him to stand tall. It almost became a symbol for facing the future with resolve.

When he didn't have the muscle tone to ride a bicycle, Ms. Sadowitz came up with incentives. When Sam hit a milestone on his bicycle's speedometer, for instance, he got to go fishing, one of his favorite things.

Later, in middle school, Sam joined the football team even though he had never even watched a football game on television.

"I love the camaraderie and the team bonding," Sam said. "We go through 100-degree heat together in helmets and shoulder pads."

In high school, he wanted to join the Soddy-Daisy skeet team, too, but it took some assurances from his mother before he was given permission. "They weren't so sure about an autistic kid with a firearm," Ms. Sadowitz said.

Now, his coach says, Sam is one of his most trusted shooters. Rigid adherence to rules, after all, is Sam's game.

• • •

Ms. Sadowitz, who is divorced, said sometimes she has struggled to make ends meet. She mortgaged her house several times to pay for necessities. (Sam's twin now lives with his father.) Ultimately, she filed for bankruptcy, and last year she lost her house.

There were times when money was so tight that she accepted meals from the Jewish Federation of Greater Chattanooga. They would bring big trays of hot food to the house once a week that would feed the family for several days.

Sam once read about a kid who grew vegetables for charity, and he decided that would be a good way to give back to the meals-on-wheels program that had fed his family.

The first year of Sam's backyard garden, he grew five bushels of tomatoes and several bushels of peppers to give to the Jewish Federation so they could be used to cook food for other needy families.

"It was overwhelming to see the total harvest," Ms. Sadowitz said.

They both believe God was at work in the soil.

• • •

Until he died last year, one of Sam's biggest cheerleaders was his maternal grandfather, Otto "Jack" Schaible, who lived in New Jersey.

Slow-talking and blunt, Schaible would exhort Sam to shake off his limitations. As a young man, Schaible had learning disabilities, too, but refused to yield to his shortcomings.

Ms. Sadowitz says that Schaible was Sam's life coach. Sam took care of his grandfather and refused to leave his bedside in the days just before he died.

"Forget this autism," Schaible would tell Sam, in his finger-wagging way. "Don't let anybody tell you that you can't fight, Sammy."

• • •

Sam's senior year at Soddy-Daisy High has been a whirlwind. He is set to finish in the Top 10 percent of his class academically. He will attend UTC next year, and he wants to study computational engineering.

In preparation for college, Sam applied for a Gates Millennium Scholarship, a lavish program funded by Bill and Melinda Gates for minorities who want to study math or science in college. (One of Sam's grandmothers is Puerto Rican.)

The scholarship pays all college and graduate-school expenses, in some cases through the doctorate level. It is said to be worth up to $500,000 per student. There are only 1,000 Gates scholarships awarded nationwide each year.

Sam and his mom tried to be realistic about his chances, but it was hard not to be hopeful.

One Monday in April, other Gates scholarship applicants started to report on Facebook that they had gotten replies in the mail. Little letters signaled rejection; a big envelope meant you were a scholarship winner.

By Thursday of that week, Sam agreed with his mother that it was probably time to give up hoping for a Gates letter.

"I think some kid needs it more than I do," Sam told his mother.

At that moment, his mother realized her son had a golden heart worth more than the contents of Fort Knox.

Still, on Friday of that week, Ms. Sadowitz went to check the mail after hearing the mail truck putter by outside.

When she opened the mailbox, she felt the blood drain from her face. She grabbed the envelope and ran.

• • •

Sam was in class at Soddy-Daisy High School when his mother burst into the room.

Somebody at the head of the class was talking about sources of inspiration.

"I have to interrupt," Ms. Sadowitz said. "If you want to know about inspiration, let me tell you about my boy, Sammy."

She waved the envelope so Sam could see.

"It's big," he said. "It's the big one."

"We got it!" Ms. Sadowitz screamed.

Sam ran up and bear-hugged his mother.

• • •

Sam's story is important because of the hope it gives parents of kids with autism -- especially those who are fresh from that first call from preschool.

"When Sammy was little, people said he would never be able to play sports, he'd never be at the top of his class, he'll never be a leader," Ms. Sadowitz recalled.

"But if you work, and you fight, and you make your place, great things are possible," she said. "My Sammy never gave up."

Other 2012 Gates Millennium Scholars from the area

• Jose Angel Cruz, McCallie School, from Dalton, Ga.

• Matthew Chen, Baylor School, from Florida.

• Monica Maldonado, Dalton High School, from Dalton, Ga.

• Hira Qureshi, Dalton High School, from Dalton, Ga.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is the editor of the Times Free Press opinion pages and writes the Sunday “Life Stories” column. He also writes a Saturday automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for Best Community Lifestyles four times during his tenure. Before Chattanooga’s newspapers ...

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