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Scholarship Honors Memory of Leigh’s Never-Give-Up Attitude

Thursday, October 21, 2021


Emily Leigh and daughter SophiaEmily Leigh was well on her way to becoming a nurse and realizing a goal of helping others and providing for the most important person in her life – her daughter Sophia.

Known as “Emmy” to her friends and family, Leigh didn’t have an easy path toward her education. She started at a four-year school but despite her love of learning, it proved not to be a great fit. As she decided on her next steps, she had Sophia and fell in love with being a mom. The desire to provide for her daughter helped lead her to St. Louis Community College-Forest Park.

Leigh was in her third semester as a nursing student at Forest Park when she passed away in April, after less than a year living with epilepsy. She was 33.

“I’m still having a hard time realizing that she’s gone,” said Leslie Walther, Leigh’s mother. “Emmy was so determined and so committed to learning. She loved to learn. She had some struggles, right out of high school with college, but she never gave up.”

To honor her memory, STLCC and the Leigh family developed a scholarship in Emily’s name. It was designed for a student that, like Emily, wanted to become a nurse to go beyond the normal care that is expected of the profession and work with those who needed help most.

Leigh always had a huge heart for people, but especially for those in need. That sense of giving has been important to her since she was born and just grew as she got older.

Leigh and her twin sister, Carrie, arrived prematurely and needed extra care. As a child and into her young adulthood, she always helped those who struggled. When she worked at her dad’s dental practice up until her death, she was the person people turned to when scared or needed comforting. She appreciated the compassion and the effort she received from health care professionals during her battle with epilepsy.

Leigh would have graduated at the end of the fall 2021 semester. Tom and Leslie Walther hoped a scholarship would help their daughter’s legacy live on.

“We thought that through a scholarship, hopefully people would come to understand and know something about her, and it would let other students know that you can struggle, and you start, and you can stop,” Leslie Walther said. “But if you never give up and you just keep on that eventually you can get through the program.

“I just hope students can hear about it and know there’s hope for them. There’s all kind of Emmies in your cohort of students.”

A Clear Winner
The scholarship, which is scheduled to be a one-time award, went to Reuben Hemmer. In his final semester of nursing school, he also hasn’t had a straight path toward a degree but has used his time to work with those in need.

Hemmer has gone on aid trips to build a playground for an orphanage in Slovakia and raised money to help poor communities in Tanzania. He followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the U.S. Navy as a hospital corpsman and eventually became the lead petty officer in charge of a medical unit that cared for nearly 300 Marines.

While in school, Hemmer has worked at a hemodialysis clinic where, he said, most patients are below the poverty line. Many also suffer from mental health disorders and/or battle drug dependencies.

“Emily and I were partnered often during clinical,” Hemmer wrote in his scholarship essay. “Emily would elaborate about her medical condition, along with the fears she had for her daughter, and her struggles through the nursing program while attempting to juggle it all.

“I was speechless, mostly out of absolute sadness that she was going through something she could not control, but I was also inspired by her unbelievable strength,” Hemmer said. “Emily would tell me stories about taking tests while she was in the hospital, and how she never wanted to give up.

“It was incredible, her bravery and dedication were leaps and bounds over some of the toughest Marines I served with.”

Though Leigh’s family, which includes her close friend, former husband and Sophia’s father Nathan Leigh, didn’t have a chance to review the scholarship applications before the winner was determined, Leslie Walther said after they read Hemmer’s essay it was clear why he won.

It emulated Emmy Leigh’s words to live by: In a world where you can be anything, be kind.

“I said you might want to get a couple of tissues out,” she remembered telling her family before handing them Hemmer’s essay. “He seems like a remarkable young man and I just wish him the best and I hope this scholarship was able to relieve some burden.”

The Desire to Finish
Kristen Krewson, the nursing program coordinator at STLCC-Forest Park, saw Emily Leigh’s dedication whenever she was around her. It was evident in how hard she worked and how much she persevered despite the challenges she faced.

But there was one reason that proved paramount in all the effort Leigh put in as she worked to get through the program.

“Emily was in one of my clinical rotations at St. Mary’s Hospital. What I noticed about Emily is she had a lot of drive and a lot of desire to finish the program,” she said. “The other thing that always stood out about her was how good of a mother she was. She talked about Sophia all the time. You could tell she was doing all of this for her daughter. That was the thing that was providing her the motive to finish the program.”

That’s why nursing was a perfect fit for Leigh, noted Leslie Walther, who has been a nurse for 39 years. She knew the role provided everything her daughter wanted.

“She saw that as a woman and a mom that being a nurse can be very flexible,” Walther said. “You can work full time, or you can work part time. She loved people. She loved to help people. She was very sweet and empathetic.”

Walther said Forest Park’s nursing program also offered something special to her daughter.

“She chose Forest Park over some of the other campuses because she did a lot of research. She realized Children’s Hospital was a clinical site and she was hopeful to have a clinical rotation there. She and her twin sister were preemies there. Her heart was back at Children’s to go into the NICU there.”

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