By Yadira Betances
---- — Editor’s note: This is part of a weekly series of stories to be published over the summer about ordinary people who are making a difference in their communities.
LAWRENCE — Growing up in Lawrence, Joanna DePena said many doors opened for her through playing basketball at the Boys & Girls Club of Lawrence.
She received a scholarship to a boarding school, attended Nichols College where she made the dean’s list for the spring 2009 semester. She later transferred to LaSalle College from which she graduated. She also attended Disney College and worked at Magic Kingdom.
In her junior year at LaSalle, DePena, 23, founded Top Notch Network, a private social network site that will fund college scholarships to Lawrence students through members’ $20 dues. Top Notch’s logo is a balance with a globe on one scale and three books with a graduation cap on the other. The group will host events throughout the year for students who want to go to community college, technical school or a four-year university. The scholarships will be for average students with a grade point average of 3.0 and who are community oriented.
“I want to pay it forward,” DePena said. “I was blessed to have been successful and what I’m doing now is giving others the opportunity so they can become successful.”
Born in Lawrence, she grew up on Summer Street with her mother, Altagracia DePena. She started going to the Boys & Girls Club at age 7 for its basketball program.
“My whole life has revolved around basketball and through it, I’ve learned to never give up and learned that every second counts. In basketball even if there’s only 10 minutes you can still win the game,” DePena said.
She also learned that if she was not doing well at school, she could not participate in the game she loves, either at the Boys & Girls Club or at Proctor Academy.
“It taught me that if you can tie athletics or arts with academics, you can be well-rounded and more successful,” she said.
DePena said she learned how to be resilient from her years at the Boys & Girls Club and playing basketball at Leonard School.
“I was blessed to have had success and what I want to do is give other students the same opportunity,” she said.
In addition to the Boys & Girls Club, she is indebted to Dr. Richard Lindsay of Andover Animal Hospital.
DePena has made a public service announcement about the importance of staying in school featuring Boston Celtics Walter McCarthy, New England Patriot Tony Collins as well as State Sen. Barry Finegold, D-Andover, and State Reps. Marcos Devers and Frank Moran, both of Lawrence.
She has been able to establish a network of celebrities almost by chance. She met McCarthy at a rally for Obama in Concord and introduced herself. She met Collins when he spoke at the Wetherbee School. Collins is helping DePena organize the golf tournament in July.
Those who know DePena from the Boys & Girls Club and Proctor Academy are not surprised about her starting Top Notch Network.
“She’s a spark plug. I marvel at her every day. She has plans for what she wants to do and I just say, “Keep going and do it.” said Steve Kelley, associate director at the club.
“He inspired her to give back to the next generation of kids. Every time we talk she energizes me because she has boundless energy. “All the time she was going to school, she was planning on how to help the next generation.”
Kelley has known DePena since age 12 and was her basketball coach at the Boys & Girls Club.
“She was just a pleasure to coach. When you coach someone, you see their strengths, weaknesses, and the determination they use on the court,” Kelley said. “You can see what’s inside of them.”
Kelley said he is “thrilled” DePena is offering scholarships for inner city kids. “You can absolutely see its coming from her heart and that’s the type of person she is.”
Kelley said DePena takes the lead whenever he sees a need in the community.
“She looks at the situation and seeks help for those who need it. That’s something that I love about her,” Kelley said.
One case was a walk for cancer she started for Angel who has since died. This year’s walk is being dedicated to a student at the Wetherbee School who suffers from the illness. She partnered with St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital
“She knows from personal experience she had to struggle to make things work. Now she is saying, ‘How many kids can I help with this” and “What can I do to make Lawrence a place.”
After graduating from the Leonard School, she received a four-year scholarship to Proctor Academy, a boarding school at the base of Rugged Mountain in Andover, N.H. She felt she was not academically prepared for the rigorous program at Proctor so she repeated the eighth grade at the former Holy Trinity School at the suggestion of Kelley.
“I trusted him and it was the best decision I’ve ever made that was the best opportunity for me. I can’t even fathom what life would be like if I had not gone to Proctor,” DePena said.
Administrators at Proctor Academy feel the same way.
Gregor Makechnie, the school’s athletic director, was one of the administrators who interviewed DePena when she applied to the school.
“We were very impressed with her drive and desire to be successful,” he said. “Her character and work ethic was abundant and in her years here, she certainly prove our impression.”
Even though DePena came from the city, she was able to adapt to the rural community and take advantage of many opportunities offered at the school. DePena traveled to Costa Rica, France, Spain and England through the school’s study abroad program.
“I liked her sense of adventure and willingness to try new things and her willingness to do more work. She wanted that challenge and there’s an energy about her that benefitted people around here.”
Makechnie said he was not surprised when he learned of DePena’s foundation to help others like herself.
“It’s not required, but it’s always our hope that when we allocate money for students they seize the opportunity and at some level take it forward,” Makechnie said.
“Her initiative to create the scholarship speaks of our tangible desire to help other people and it makes Proctor very proud,” he said.
Noreen Fifield, basketball coach at Proctor, agreed.
“She always seized the day and now she wants to return it to other people,” she said.
DePena joined the basketball team at Proctor and Fifield said she always put the team first, looking for the open woman on the court, they were her sisters and always had each other’s back.
Before DePena joined the Hornets varsity basketball team, they had never won a championship. In 2008 they not only ended the season 20-1, but made history by winning the New England championship.
“Winning the championship was amazing,” she said.
Basketball is now on the back burner concentrating her efforts on Top Notch Network, to help others achieve their dreams and change Lawrence’s negative image.
“Growing up in Lawrence is what made me the person I am today. If Lawrence is so bad, I wouldn’t be able to do all I’ve done. You have to be a go-getter, get involved and help make the change,” she said.
DePena tutors at Family Service Inc. and has participated in river and alleyways cleanups with Groundwork Lawrence.
“She was successful because she was willing to work hard, led by example and did anything she was asked,” Fifield said.
“She’s very sensitive, thoughtful, hard worker, won’t back down; her adversity only makes her stronger,” she said.
If you go What: Celebrity Golf tournament with Bruins, Celtics and Patriots alumni including Tony Collins, Doug Flutie, Steve Grogan, Andre Tippet, Steve Nelson, Pete Brock, Roland James, Ronnie Lippet and Robert Perryman. When: July 18, 8 a.m. shotgun start. Registration is at 7 a.m. Where: Merrimack Valley Golf Course, 210 Howe St., Methuen Cost: $200 per golfer. Cost includes 18 holes with golf cart, gift bag, dinner, celebrity partner, prizes, contests, silent auction, raffle prizes and a 50/50 raffle. Proceeds benefit college scholarships for Lawrence students. How: To register, log on to topnotchnetwork.net/pages/golf or call 978-994-8060.