“Business as usual,” says Debra Groover, her voice unmistakably tinged with pride. Her son, 19-year-old Rickey, has just returned from his third SkillsUSA Georgia competition. Three trips, three medals.
Considering the obstacles Rickey has faced since birth, the “three-peat,” as he calls it, is even more impressive. But with his family’s support, it’s no wonder.
At 31⁄2 years old, Rickey wasn’t speaking at all. “Fluid in his ears had gone undetected,” Debra explains. “We got tubes put in his ears, and within a month, he was talking. But then he started having seizures, which we came to find out were nearly constant, split-second seizures.”
These continued when Rickey started school, keeping him from hearing parts of instructions. “He’d be in a math class,” Debra remembers, “and he’d say, ‘7 plus 7 is 14,’ and they’d say, ‘Write the answer down,’ and he’d write a ‘4.’ His brain would seize out as he was writing and not realize that he didn’t write the ‘1’.”
To help deal with the condition, Rickey entered a special education program. Understandably, the youngest of five became shy and withdrawn, especially around groups. But by the time he entered Centennial High School in Roswell, Ga., all that was about to change, thanks in part to the example of older sister Holly.
Holly, now 21, is about to finish Georgia State University’s four-year program in criminal justice a year early. Meanwhile, she’s working full time at the Roswell detention center. While she won a gold medal in Criminal Justice at the 2008 SkillsUSA Championships, the bronze from her regional competition two years earlier made a bigger impression, she says.
“I competed in Job Skill Demonstration A. I literally figured out what I was going to do and practiced it the night before the competition. I ended up winning bronze, but I realized that if I had actually worked at it, I would’ve gone further.” Holly hasn’t made that mistake again.
“She’s just amazing,” Debra says, her pride coming through once more. “She’s gone to school nonstop since graduating. She’s gone during the summer, all while working a full-time job. I wish more people could see what somebody with the right mindset can accomplish.”
Holly explains, “It’s the drive to want more. That’s the one thing SkillsUSA has taught me: that I don’t have to settle.”
The student passed that lesson on to her little brother, who decided that a career in law enforcement appealed to him, too. So did membership in SkillsUSA.
“Holly’s really my motivator,” Rickey says. “If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t have gotten this far.”
In SkillsUSA, Rickey’s shyness grew into confidence. One of his friends, Zac Snyder, noticed the change immediately.
“Rickey thrives in small group settings, and he used to shut down when speaking in front of crowds,” says Snyder, a fellow student who served as SkillsUSA Georgia’s vice president. “But through SkillsUSA, he learned to speak to the judges and to control his nerves.”
The newfound skills served Rickey well at his first national competition, where he won his own bronze medal in 2009.
“In Action Skills, you demonstrate something in the field you’re interested in,” he points out. “I’m interested in law enforcement, so I showed how to handcuff a suspect.”
The suspect was played by Snyder. Impressed with Rickey’s accomplishments, he started a student support campaign in his friend’s name. Now “Rickey’s Challenge,” designed to help SkillsUSA Georgia students attend the national conference, has raised more than $1,500 for this year’s delegation.
“People just accept him here for who he is,” Debra says of her son’s place in SkillsUSA. “It’s amazing that this program will take your normal, everyday student and also take the time for the special needs student to help him succeed and feel good, too. I can’t say enough.”
Rickey agrees. “It’s the value of friendship, people helping people out. I’m very driven by that,” he adds.
Speaking of “driven,” he’s a member of the Police Explorers, an extension of his criminal justice program that allows students to ride with local officers. The experience helped Rickey discover his favorite aspect of police work.
“Ever since I saw a police officer turning on the lights and pulling someone over, I was fascinated by traffic stops,” he says.
“The officers know of Rickey as the ‘traffic cop,’ ” Debra adds. “They know that when Rickey rides with them, they’re going to do a lot of traffic stops.” Consider yourselves warned, drivers of Roswell.
As for Holly, who plans to enter the police academy immediately after graduation, she’s particularly interested in the prospect of preventing domestic and child abuse. “Those things bother me so much,” she says.
“Her advisor from high school [law and justice instructor Tom Washburn] says she’s going to be the first female FBI director,” Debra adds.
The positive impact SkillsUSA has had on the lives of her youngest children has inspired Debra’s ongoing involvement. She’s been a chaperone for the last four years at the state level and was even asked to judge the national Customer Service contest, a fitting choice considering her children’s interests.
“The love all my kids have for people just amazes me,” she says. “My husband [Mark] is a fireman, then my son [Mickey] became a fireman. Three [Wendy, Holly and Rickey] are taking law enforcement, and I have another [Mandy] who’s going to be a teacher. I don’t know where all the public service came from.”
“We’re just excited about being rich,” Holly laughs — perhaps not fully realizing that, in the eyes of many, the Groovers already are.