Casey Adams thought she was in Los Angeles this week for a party honoring accomplished high school students.
And then she heard a voice shout "Hello, hello!" in a Philadelphia accent that sounded a lot like her own. And she knew: Kevin Hart, the big-time comedian and actor who grew up not far from her own North Philly neighborhood, was there, and magical things were about to happen.
Adams and 17 other young people — six from Philadelphia — were surprised Monday with $600,000 in college scholarships from Hart and the United Negro College Fund. An incoming freshman at Spelman College in Atlanta, Adams found out she's getting $10,000 annually over four years. The money will be a game-changer, Adams said.
"It's a huge help," said the Central High School graduate. "I was going to have to pay $16,000 out of pocket every year. My family can't afford that."
The Hart scholarships, awarded to graduates of KIPP charter schools headed for historically black colleges and universities, are designed to remove such barriers, said Michael Lomax, UNCF president. A full three-quarters of students attending HBCUs are eligible for federal Pell grants, meaning they are from low- to moderate-income families. But the grants only go so far.
"A lot of students are on this journey, and they don't have the financial capital and the social and cultural capital to manage," Lomax said.
Adams was determined to find a way. The importance of education was drilled into her from a young age by her single mother, who works as an aide for Philadelphia School District students with special needs.
"My mom didn't attend college; she had things holding her back," Adams said. "But she sacrificed for me and my siblings so we could get the education we need, because she didn't have that opportunity."
A turning point, she said, came in 2010 when her mother got her into KIPP Philadelphia Preparatory Academy, a charter school, when Adams was a fifth grader.
"My mom saw that KIPP was giving out opportunities of a lifetime," said Adams. "That's where all my ambitions started."
High standards challenged her, and opportunities like a class trip to the Grand Canyon nourished her, Adams said. She soared, earning her spot at Central, and just moved to Atlanta to begin studying economics and English at Spelman.
And when KIPP, a nationwide charter school network and partner of the UNCF, looked for outstanding graduates to recognize with the Hart scholarships, Adams was a natural.
So were Jada Taylor (entering Clark Atlanta University), Alexys Smith (a rising senior at Lincoln University), Marjani Walton (entering her sophomore year at Lincoln), Willie Smalls (entering Morehouse College), and Wayne Fuller (a rising junior year at Morehouse).
And yes, the meeting-Kevin-Hart-in-person-part was pretty fabulous, the students reported.
"We were all just sitting there, and I heard his voice, and I said, 'Oh, my God, it's Kevin Hart!' " said Fuller, a 2016 graduate of KIPP DuBois Collegiate Academy in West Philadelphia.
"It was surreal," Adams said. "We shook hands, we hugged, we talked a little. It's just nice to know that someone as big as Kevin Hart can be humble, can give back to his community. You can tell he's really genuine; he doesn't just want the attention."
Fuller said his mom cried when she heard the scholarship news.
"This lets me focus on school more, and on what I want to do post-graduation," said Fuller, who wants to launch his own record label and form a nonprofit to address housing, health-care, and education issues.
Aiding students like Fuller and Adams was personally important to Hart, officials said.
"He wanted to meet them, encourage them, recharge their batteries with this gift," Lomax said. "Because he's a celebrity, because of his platform, his gift is bigger than the money. It sends a message far and wide that there are gifted young people who are doing everything right."