Mississippi teen’s life filled with tragedy, but hope prevails

Published 7:49 am Sunday, March 17, 2019

Life has been tough for 18-year-old Joseph French, a Mississippi high school student.

Now a senior at Sacred Heart Catholic School in Hattiesburg, he has faced many tragedies:

— His mother died when he was in the third grade.

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— He and his parents were living with his maternal grandparents at the time, and with his mother’s passing, French and his father were kicked out of the house.

— Facing homelessness, they eventually found refuge until they were able to get a house of their own.

— A few years later, French’s father developed heart disease.

— In 2018, French’s father was put on life support and died in April.

Through it all, French has remained optimistic and has a message for others who have faced hard times — it is possible to triumph over tragedy.

French has. He is only one of 105 seniors in the nation to receive a $25,000 college scholarship.

The Horatio Alger National Scholarship recognizes outstanding students who, in the face of great personal adversity, have exhibited a commitment to pursue their dreams through higher education.
“I’m ecstatic,” French said. “I was not expecting that.”

French received several other scholarships and will have a full ride to the University of Southern Mississippi, where he hopes to pursue a nursing degree.

“I want to help people,” he said. “I’ve always had to help family in the past.
“It makes me feel good to help people.”

French’s mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer when he was 8 years old. She died when he was 9.

French, who has an older sister who has been out of the house for years, has mostly had to rely on extended family members for support.

“They sent me to my sister’s where I wouldn’t see the majority of it, but when I was around, I would bring her food, help her to the bathroom — stuff like that,” he said. “Then, when my dad got heart disease, I had to help him.”
French said when his mother died, it was a major trauma.

“It was the first time I had experienced death,” he said. “It was May 18, 2009.
“I had a field trip that day. My mom had breathing complications and she was in the hospital.”

Doctors said French’s mother had two weeks to live, but that same night the family got a call that she was about to pass away.

“That day she had told me she loved me,” French said. “Those were the last words she ever spoke to me.”

A few years later French’s father got sick. He was 11 or 12 when his father began complaining of back and shoulder pain.

It turned out he had two defective heart valves. After several unsuccessful surgeries, a human and pig valve were implanted, along with a defibrillator.

“He used to a big man — a strong man,” French said. “He became very frail. Not just the same man.”

French’s father managed to live without too many incidents until 2018, when he was sent home from work suffering from confusion. He was taken to Forrest General emergency and diagnosed with pneumonia.

He spent four weeks in the ICU on life support and French, at the age of 17, had to make the difficult decision to take him off the machines.

“My dad had told me he didn’t want to stay on life support,” French said. “He went very peacefully.

“The nurse said it was the most peaceful death he’d ever seen. I try to look at the positive in things. That was the best thing that came from that.”

French hasn’t had to struggle through these trials by himself. He lives with his aunt and uncle, Jimmy and Tammy Taylor, and they have been a source of support for him. He’s also received strength from his Sacred Heart football and powerlifting coach, Lonny Schraeder.

“Joey wants to do it all on his own, but every once in a while, a guy needs a little help,” Schrader said. “There isn’t a single person at this school who wouldn’t bend over backwards to help him.

“I wouldn’t wish his situation on anyone. Our kids wanted Joey to know we cared about him and our hearts were breaking for him.”

Jimmy Taylor said French is pretty self-sufficient.

“He handles it all real well,” he said. “He really doesn’t need any help.

“He comes by for advice for general stuff. We’ve talked about college. He’s just about gotten it taken care of. He knows what to do.”

French stays busy with school and with his work overseeing 100 vending machines around the state.

“I’ve always been fast-paced,” he said. “If it needs to be done, I just do it.
“There have been times when I’ve overloaded myself, but I just get back on track.”

For now, French is looking forward to college and a bright future.

“I work a lot — stay busy,” he said. “It keeps my mind off the negative things.
“No matter what comes your way — you can get over it.”