Tierra Ledbetter, a Columbus High School honor graduate, hangs out at the Riverwalk on Tuesday. She won both the local and state Exchange Club awards for Accepting the Challenge of Excellence (ACE) for an essay she wrote highlighting her lifetime of overcoming adversity. She now will compete for the national prize and a $10,000 scholarship. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
June 13, 2018 10:23:41 AM
Tierra Ledbetter was a 4-year-old tee-ball player when she got the nickname "Firecracker" from her coach Cassandra Bogan.
Bogan, Ledbetter's godmother and now guardian, said the fire she saw in Ledbetter while she ran around the bases still burns bright within her today.
"She'd just run so hard, like there was no end to it," Bogan said. "She's not going to get out; she's determined. That little bit of fire, even through adversity, has never been put out."
Ledbetter's life story has centered on overcoming challenges since she was just over a week old, when her mother was shot and killed. She and her sister Qula were raised by their grandparents, both of whom passed away on the same day last year from congestive heart failure.
After that, "Firecracker" moved in with her old coach, maintaining her focus on higher education despite having to deal with a childhood full of loss.
"People expected me to give up," said Ledbetter, who graduated with honors from Columbus High School in May. "I just wanted to make my parents proud and not be a statistic."
An essay Ledbetter wrote this spring about her lifetime of facing adversity has already earned her $1,450 in scholarships. On Saturday, she accepted $1,000 as the state Exchange Club Accepting the Challenge of Excellence Award winner, which she vied for after winning the same award on the school and local club levels.
She now will compete on the national level in July, where the grand prize is a $10,000 scholarship.
"She's eager to survive," Bogan said of Ledbetter. "I'm glad they honored her with that (award). She's excited about it, and she's earning something by her actions.
"I know it gave her a boost and helped her to know someone gave her a pat on the back for her accomplishments," she added.
Ledbetter started working when she was 16 and has not slowed down since. While in high school, she worked two food service jobs -- at Krispy Kreme and Sonic -- while also completing 34 credits hours at East Mississippi Community College through dual enrollment.
Throughout high school, Ledbetter also competed in soccer, track and field and slow-pitch softball.
Juggling two jobs, high school, after-school activities and her college classes never seemed too much for Ledbetter. She said she just managed her time and took each task as it came.
Even with only one day off a week, Ledbetter said she stayed ahead of all her work in both high school and college.
"I use work as my comfort zone," Ledbetter said. "... It's not as hard as people make it seem. You just have to do it."
She intends to finish her assistant physical therapy degree at EMCC and transfer to study kinesiology at either the Mississippi State University or the University of Southern Mississippi.
When her studies conclude, she wants to work as an athletic trainer, a career that will keep her close to the sports she once played.
A bright future
Growing up, Ledbetter and her older sister, Qula Fulton, were best friends.
Fulton, 21, who recently graduated from MSU with a criminology degree and is seeking a law enforcement career, also served as inspiration for her younger sister.
Now, Fulton said, it's Ledbetter who is doing the inspiring.
"This is only the beginning for her," Fulton said. "I don't feel like anything can stop her."
Jessica James, who taught Ledbetter advanced placement English in the 10th, 11th and 12th grades, agreed. She said considering what her former student has already been through, she is more than able to handle the road ahead.
"She adapted. If she had a night working late or a softball game, she would make the adjustments," James said. "Like with her own personal life story, she got thrown some curveballs. While they were unfortunate, she adapted and she rose to the occasion."
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