WHILE CITY big-shots have been agitating over the school district's $629 million budget gap, a quieter financial worry is tugging at Vanita Young's heart.
Vanita, a lovely, soft-spoken junior at the Walter D. Palmer Charter School, needs $2,000 if she wants to attend the nation's most prestigious all-female chess tournament next month.
Two-grand is piddling coinage compared to what the district is facing. But it's astronomical to Vanita, 17, whose circumstances have been so tough that attendance at the tournament could actually alter the course of her future.
Proving that what happens after school matters as much as what occurs in the classroom.
"If Vanita can't go, because of just $2,000, it would be devastating," said Douglas Cox, her chess coach at Palmer. "No one deserves this more than she does."
The event is called the Susan Polgar Girls' Invitational and, in the world of chess, it's a BFD, as the kids like to say.
From July 24-29, 50 girls will be mentored by Polgar, the world's first female chess grand master (who's like Madonna to those fond of rooks). Then they'll compete for $120,000 in scholarships and prizes during the annual chess-fest at Texas Tech University, in Lubbock, Texas, where Polgar directs her eponymous Institute for Chess Excellence.
Each year, thousands of girls vie for the honor to represent their state. After Vanita beat out more than 600 girls at the PA State Scholastic Chess Championship last March, she got the exclusive call to attend the invitational.
"It's the best thing that ever happened to me," Vanita said yesterday, as her school's chess team, the Dark Knights, practiced nearby. "Any time I have a bad day, I think of winning and feel happy again."
Feeling happy is no small feat for Vanita, who was abandoned by her mom at age 2 and whose beloved dad - "He tried hard," she said - battled the bottle before dying suddenly of diabetes complications in 2007.
Vanita learned of his death right after triumphing at a chess competition hosted by the nonprofit After School Activities Partnership, whose mentors are like Vanita's second family. She'd discovered ASAP and chess years before, and couldn't stay away from the game.
Not even after she was assaulted while walking to her home in West Philly, where she lives with her dad's parents, Raymond and Algoria Evans. She'd just come from Clark Park, where she'd played chess with other amateurs who are regulars there.
"He wasn't even a player, but he was watching me in a way I didn't like, so I left," she said.
He followed her and grabbed her, but she was able to break free and the man was caught.
Vanita quickly resumed her playing because, she said, "It's always there for me. There's a whole family of people who care about me. It lets me go into deep thought."
"She's really focused," said Jennifer Shahade, Philly's hot, national chess star and author of the sassy Chess Bitch: Women in the Ultimate Intellectual Sport. She mentors ASAP's chess players and has been impressed by Vanita.
"Not a lot of girls take chess seriously," she said, "but she's determined."
Not just about the game but about what it might do for her. Vanita loves numbers ("She's one of my best students," says her math teacher, Andy Isom), and hopes that chess success will nab her a scholarship to Texas Tech, where she'd major in computer science.
But first she has to get to that pricey invitational. A dress-up-day fundraiser at her school netted $300. But she needs another $1,700 to pay for her and a chaperone to spend an exhilarating week at the invitational, mixing it up with girls like Vanita - quiet, focused, numbers-obsessed and eager to share their love of chess with the world.
"When I have kids, I want them all to be chess grand masters," said Vanita. "It helps you be a good, smart person."
Wanna help? Send a donation in Vanita's name to ASAP, 1520 Locust St., Suite 1104, Phila., PA 19102. More info: 215-545-2727.
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