Female leaders of Grant Park Gymnastic Club spark GSU’s Mary Peavy Scholarship

As Marguerite Raaen worked her way through masters and doctoral degrees at Georgia State University thirty years ago, she saved money by riding her bike. Barely a mile separated the contrasting worlds of hope and possibilities at the university and problems of poverty around her home in Grant Park.

Raaen, who had moved to the city from north Georgia, began looking for a way to help the large number of disadvantaged families. She had been a certified gymnastics coach in north Georgia and knew that that sport helped young girls soar.

The warm, dynamic leader of the Grant Park Girls Club, Mary Peavy, welcomed Raaen’s energy and expertise and knew it would inspire the Girls Club participants. Peavy passed away last year; Raaen continues her legacy through a scholarship for students at GSU.

Impact on GSU student recipients   

“Honestly I don’t know if I would be here without the Peavy Scholarship,” said senior biology major Naeshia McDowell, a 1913 Society ambassador and peer mentor. “At GSU, I’ve definitely grown as a person and become comfortable in my own skin. There are so many things to be involved with in the heart of the city, and I’ve found my best friends at Georgia State.”

“When I was awarded the Mary Peavy Girls Club Scholarship, I was in total shock,” said Judy Ihedioha, an incoming freshman who is planning a career in pharmacy or psychiatry.  “This scholarship helps my mother out, relieving her of some financial stress. I am truly honored.”

The Peavy Scholarship supports students who have shown high academic achievement. Preference is given to incoming freshman and young women who are members or former members of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta. Funding like the Peavy Scholarship is critical to many students staying at GSU and progressing to graduation.

“I had never really thought about how important scholarships were, but now that I have received two I find them to be highly important,” said Peavy Scholar Jessica Rios, a biology major. “Whether you’re a student on campus or a commuter, any financial help is amazing.”

Volunteering for change

These scholarship recipients weren’t even born when Raaen and Peavy joined forces to invest in the girls of Grant Park. Before they began, fewer than half the girls in the club graduated from high school.

“Mary was soft-spoken and one of the warmest women I have ever known,” Raaen recalled, speaking from her home near Washington DC.

“She never had any children biologically, and although she loved the two boys from her husband’s first marriage, Mary loved working with little girls and making their futures brighter. Mary really felt that the Girls Club members were her children. Those kids were so deprived financially and emotionally, and a lot were abused, and her warmth made all the difference in the world to them.”

They trained the girls to compete across Georgia in gymnastics as the Grant Park Gymnastics Club. The exposure created new possibilities of better health, college athletic scholarships and loftier dreams. All but three gymnasts graduated from high school.

“For a long time, Georgia was No. 1 in the country for teen pregnancy, and gymnastics was a way for the girls to focus on physical activity and healthy living – how to eat and exercise,” said Pat Jackson, Peavy’s assistant.

To raise $30,000 for the balance beam and other expensive equipment, Raaen told the Girls Club story to Atlanta civic groups. Later, she helped raise funds to endow the Peavy Scholarship and named it as a beneficiary of her own planned gift.

“The reason is because of the difference that Mary Peavy made in those girls’ lives,” said Raaen, adding that some of the gymnasts went on to attend GSU. “Directors at Boys and Girls Clubs don’t get a lot of praise or glory in their careers, but the difference I saw her make in those girls was amazing.”

Alumna soars as well

As a GSU student and former special education teacher, Raaen (B.A, 1974, M.Ed., 1984, Ph.D. 1992) studied how to harness computers to teach those who have difficulty learning. As she was helping the Grant Park gymnasts soar, GSU was helping her build a foundation to do the same.

Raaen went on from GSU to hold global leadership positions at IBM and other tech companies, as well as the federal government. Her patent helped produce Watson, IBM’s computer designed to quickly and accurately answer questions posed in natural language. In London, she was the executive vice president and chief information officer for Cable & Wireless/Exodus Inc., the world’s largest global telecom and hosting/outsource vendor.

She served as chief information officer and chief technology officer of the U.S. Department of Education. At the National Cancer Institute, she developed a public portal for worldwide cancer research.

Back in Atlanta, Peavy and the gymnastics program helped spark Moving in the Spirit, a nationally recognized youth development program that uses dance to transform the lives of children and teens in Atlanta’s underserved areas. For the past seven years, every dancer in their teen apprentice program has gone on to college or vocational training.

“For these kids to shoot for the stars, they need the whole community circle to believe in them, like Mary believed in me,” recalled Dana Lupton, who helped with the gymnasts in the mid-1980s before co-founding Moving in the Spirit.

“Mary had sunbeams coming out of her eyes,” Lupton added. “She was passionate and fierce and had a vision for young girls succeeding in life. She knew that gymnastics gave young women a sense of self and presentation, and she knew that was critical for them to have a strong body and stance.”

Motivating first generation college students

At the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta’s College Bound program, the Peavy Scholarship provides motivation to pursue higher education and dreams of success. College Bound teaches academic success skills and prepares students to apply for admission and scholarships.

The College Bound students face challenges like the gymnasts of Grant Park: 78 percent are from single parent households, and 82 percent live at or below the poverty line. Many are the first in their families to finish high school.

“Our whole purpose is to even the playing field for kids who otherwise don’t have opportunities to go to college, help them get on track with their academic success and make sure they are living healthy lives and becoming leaders,” said Missy Dugan, president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta. “Scholarships like Mary Peavy truly enable kids to look at college as a reality.”

Raaen continues to give to the Peavy Scholarship also out of gratitude for the experience of a special gymnast: her own daughter.

Dr. Sara Caldwell went on to get a medical degree and now works as a veterinary surgeon in Portland Oregon.

The club, Raaen said, deeply influenced mother and daughter’s views of how race and poverty impact young women. When Caldwell needed help writing essay to get into college, she got help from Mary Peavy.

—By Michelle Hiskey; Contact Kim Cretors, (404) 413-3424