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Katelyn Marinelli likes to say she was in “the muddy middle” of college applicants. She wasn’t at the top of her class, which would’ve opened up doors to academic scholarships, and her family wasn’t at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, which would’ve made her eligible for financial aid.

So she was particularly pleased to hear an animated guy named Billy Staples, who visited Phillipsburg High School her senior year. Billy’s message was one of equal opportunity, no matter your background.

“It was refreshing knowing I had a shot at something,” Katelyn remembers today, long after becoming one of the first recipients of a BEST scholarship in 2009. “BEST didn’t just help out kids with tragic stories or stellar grades. They helped the muddy middle students.”

While the financial help wasn’t extraordinary—it helped with books—the real value was relationships she developed with board members, she says. “They don’t just hand you a check. They are all so down to earth and caring about everyone,” she says. “Judy [Tierney] has everyone’s back, even while she runs around like a crazy person coordinating events, making sure everyone and everything is OK.

“BEST also really helped with responsibility,” Katelyn adds. “I feel I need to be at fundraisers and special events to make it great for the new kids, and I also want to be there. I’ve seen what BEST does for kids who don’t have the family support I’ve always enjoyed, and it’s phenomenal.”

Katelyn’s BEST mentor was Monica Zeeman, a family friend who taught life skills to Phillipsburg High School seniors in the special education program. When she was herself a senior, Katelyn helped with Monica’s class, which taught students skills such as budgeting, pumping gas and applying for loans. She also accompanied students on field trips, such as to a big box store to purchase snacks they’d later sell to faculty members to learn business skills.

“I don’t remember a lightbulb moment, but I just really liked being with them and working with them,” Katelyn says. “That made me decide I wanted to major in special education.”

In 2014 Katelyn graduated from Kean University with a bachelor’s in biology with dual certification for teaching biology and special education, with a minor in health education. She also played softball in college and now coaches junior varsity at her alma mater, Phillipsburg High School.

She’s also a long-term substitute teacher at Phillipsburg Middle School, where she provides in-class support for 8th grade science and math students. “I love it!” she says. “I started subbing last year, and all the teachers were so great. I had a good rapport with them and also the students.”

The concept of a good rapport is something Katelyn not only values but recognizes in many areas of her life. Reflecting on her experience with BEST, she says, “I’ve learned the scholarship is not necessarily the most important part of BEST.

“It’s hard to describe the feeling when you are working at an event and everyone is asking how you are doing. And they really mean it,” she says. “They want to know how things are going for you because they truly care.”

"It's hard to describe the feeling when you are working at an event and everyone is asking how you are doing. And they really mean it." 

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