Brittany and Destiny O'Dell were 12 years old when they arrived home from school to find their mother dead. A nurse who worked late nights, it was routine for her to be asleep when they got home, but this time they couldn't wake her. She had choked in her sleep.
That began a cavalcade of adjustments and a new "normal" for the twins.
They were pulled out of school for several weeks to grieve. Their birth father was never a presence in their lives, so they found themselves moving in with their 24-year-old half-brother and his wife. Not long after came a change in schools, bringing them from the Sequatchie Valley to Soddy-Daisy High.
The tragedy forced them to mature much more quickly than their middle school peers.
"That was the biggest turning point in our lives," Brittany said. "We knew we weren't on our own, but we didn't have our mom anymore. We had to get used to changing parenting styles, a new home, new animals and a new school."
Both sisters said they're grateful for their family's unconditional support. The expectations and goals their half-brother helped set for them played a big role in their most recent accomplishment: scholarships to top schools Emory and Wellesley universities.
The pair were finalists in the QuestBridge program, a national scholastic program to help gifted low-income students find scholarships to top colleges around the country. Thanks to the sisters' rankings, Brittany will head to Atlanta in the fall to major in business and film at Emory, while Destiny will be a Lupton Scholar at Wellesley in Massachusetts majoring in environmental studies.
"Our brother helped us so much," Destiny said of the surrogate parental role he stepped up to play. "I know they didn't want us to have too many repercussions from our mom's passing. They helped us be kids. I remember always playing Rock Band on weekends with them."
Though there were times when the pair felt a bit out of place considering they didn't have a stereotypical family, Brittany admitted, they found acceptance and comfort through their family and through
"Everyone has their own story," she said. "We were just
Through it all, the twins kept busy. They were both involved in student government and several clubs and organizations during their time at Soddy-Daisy High. The school's college advisor, Cindy Adamz, said she's confident overcoming the struggles the girls faced helped shape them into high-achieving students.
When Adamz first met the girls during their 10th-grade year, it was immediately clear they both wanted to attend top schools and do great things with their life, she said. It was under her guidance that the girls found the QuestBridge program, which requires letters of recommendation and extensive essay writing.
"They learned to advocate for themselves," said Adamz. "It's refreshing to see students who aren't afraid to talk to other people and make their presence known."
Even the path to get their scholarships wasn't easy, Adamz said. When there was an issue with Brittany's financial aid and the university insisted they didn't have her paperwork, Brittany repeatedly called to be sure they received it.
"That can be hard and intimidating for a lot of students," Adamz said. "But Brittany persevered and succeeded in finding a solution."
Destiny, meanwhile, wasn't selected by any of her top choice schools. That put her on a waiting list with numerous other QuestBridge finalists that schools were able to cherry-pick from. Without Adamz's prompting, Destiny was proactive in calling and communicating with dozens of universities, trying to stand out from the crowd. Her efforts were rewarded by two offers, and she ultimately selected Wellesley.
"They didn't ever give up," Adamz said. "They didn't do everything right the first time, but they didn't make excuses, either. This was their dream and they worked toward it."
As for the O'Dells, Destiny said they're not worried about being split up for the first time in their life.
"We don't really know what it's like to be alone. When you're a twin, it's almost like they're attached at your hip. You constantly influence one another," she said. "We're excited to see who we are without the other. We're not sure if we will be better or worse, but we'll always be a phone call away."