Hilton Head teen earned college scholarship. What came next was a bigger surprise

“Maybe we can help with that.”

Those six words uttered by president-elect Mary Briggs at a meeting last week of the Rotary Club of Hilton Head Island might have been easy to overlook. They certainly were for high school senior Lupita Gomez, who was attending the meeting as the recipient of a college scholarship.

Unbeknownst to the 18-year-old, a flurry of texts was bouncing among the members in the room and those following along on Zoom.

Gomez had attended the meeting to talk about her plans to attend the University of South Carolina Honors College in Columbia with a major in international business and a minor in French. She told them she dreams of working at the United Nations.

The group awarded her a $16,000 college scholarship — $4,000 each year for four years as long as she keeps up her grades. Academics weren’t the only consideration. The teen is involved in NJROTC and the school’s crew team. She volunteers at The Literacy Center and works 25-30 hours a week at Starbucks to help her family financially.

Behind the scenes

It was Gomez’s mention of playing viola in Hilton Head Island High’s Honors Orchestra that started Rotary members texting. The teen, who began playing the instrument in sixth grade, said she would not be able to continue in college. She rents a viola from the school and would be giving it back when she graduates.

“How much would a viola cost?” one member texted another. More than one person could afford, they decided. But more texts went out, and the donations started rolling in.

Before the lunchtime meeting was over, Briggs had $750 in cash and pledges.

Next was a call to Lizhou Liu, principal viola with the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra and the Savannah Philharmonic. He also owns BWL Music String Instruments in Savannah.

Gomez needed a small instrument; a 15-inch viola is a rare size to have on hand, Liu said. But he happened to have one in his shop and would sell it for $950, case and bow included.

A few hours later, a few more calls made, and the rest of the money was raised. The deal was done.

Surprise gift

More than a dozen Rotary members gathered outside Starbucks in Sea Turtle Marketplace on Friday morning to surprise Gomez with the viola.

Employees at the coffee shop saw the group gathering and thought they were about to have a rush of customers. Then Gomez noticed familiar faces, ones she’d seen at the Rotary meeting.

Starbucks manager Jennifer Fraley was in on the surprise. “She’s just so even-keel,” Fraley said, “very humble. ... a very nice young woman.”

The teen’s parents, Lupe and Cenon Gomez, were there, too. Their daughter will be the first in the family to go to college.

“I’m so excited,” Lupita Gomez said after she was presented the viola. “I can’t believe it. I’m sure I’ll go home, and I’ll be like, ‘What just happened?’ ... I’ll keep this throughout my whole life.“