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Young Giants on the Move

Two Teens Awarded First-Time Honor

You’ll have to excuse Justice Shoalsand Hannibal Spencer if they appear more as a blur than standing still. It’s just that these two young men have so many irons in the fire, they’re not comfortable in one spot for too long.

Just ask anyone who was at the recent Giants Awards banquet, during which this pair of high school seniors was honored not only for who they are now, but what they’re about to become.

The Giant Awards have been presented to African-American members of the West Michigan community since 1983, but this year marked the first time teens were recognized in the Junior Giants category for their notable contributions toward others. They found two of the area’s finest representatives in Justice, a senior at Innovation Central High, and Hannibal, a senior at Grand Rapids University Prep Academy.

Temporarily Homeless, Permanently Motivated

The son of Desirae Martin and stepfather George Banks, Hannibal was born in Mississippi, moving here around 2000. He attended Forest Hills Central his first three years of high school, starring there in football and track and field. In the former sport, he averaged two “pancakes” per game, which is a polite way of describing how he not-so-gently introduced running backs from opposing teams to the cold, hard ground.

He transferred to the Prep Academy for a change of culture and to be closer to his home on the city’s Southeast Side, where he lives with his parents and a younger brother, Max, who has autism.

Hannibal jumped at the opportunity to volunteer himself on behalf of Max’s soccer team, just one of the many ways in which he pitches in for others. He’s also donated time and talent to Kids’ Food Basket of Grand Rapids, the Ronald McDonald House of Western Michigan, the local Boys and Girls Club, and more.

His propensity to reach out to others is even more admirable when you consider that Hannibal was, for a three-week period during seventh grade, homeless along with his mother.

“There were some problems … and my mom wasn’t working at the time,” he says. “We lived in several different homes, and for a couple of nights in our car – a blue Olds. We parked it right outside the parking lot at Grand Rapids Christian High School; I’ll never forget that.”

At one point, they sought shelter at Mel Trotter Ministries. Of his mom, Hannibal recalls that “I never saw her cry, but I knew she was upset.”

He largely credits his mother – along with his maternal grandfather, Wayman Britt, a former basketball standout at UM who played briefly for the Detroit Pistons, and now assistant administrator for Kent County – for helping him set his compass.

“My mom is my biggest motivator,” says Hannibal. “Caring, outgoing, courageous and very strong-spirited.”

As for Britt – who, according to Hannibal, was not privy to his daughter and grandson being homeless until after they were back on their feet – Hannibal describes him as “the most tough-love person I know. I thank him a lot for that, because no matter what it is, he wants me to do it to the best of my ability. I know that my receiving the Giants award meant the world to him.”

It also meant the world to Hannibal’s University Prep principal and college adviser, Kenyatta Hill and Kanyn Doan, respectively. In nominating him for the Giants award, they wrote that Hannibal “embodies the essence of a Junior Giant by being an artistic and creative visionary, as well as a student who is able to excel through struggle and triumph regardless of challenges.”

For all his athletic prowess, Hannibal is completely comfortable with acknowledging that he also enjoys sewing. In fact, his career goal is to have his own clothing line. He’s already got a name for it, and hopes to debut it online either during or shortly after embarking on a college path that likely will take him first to Grand Rapids Community College and then UM.

Despite being homeless for a brief time, Hannibal Spencer volunteers generously for community organizations
Despite being homeless for a brief time, Hannibal Spencer volunteers generously for community organizations

A Head for Business, Heart for Helping

That’s the same school Justice may end up at, though he was accepted to a handful, and MSU is still an option. The son of Loretta Brooks, Justice lost his father, Mike, when he was just a tot. He lives on the city’s Northeast Side with Mom and a younger sister, Jeckia, 5.

Despite the hardship of his father’s death, Justice has soared in ways almost too many to count. He’s ranked sixth out of 145 academically in his senior class at Innovation Central, and stands out in other ways as a student enrolled in the school’s Academy of Business, Leadership & Entrepreneurship (ABLE).

He credits two teachers for mentoring him – Brenda Cook and Leigh Ann McCready – and especially cites his grandmother, Janice Shoals of Ohio, as a rock for him through the years.

“After my dad – her son – passed away, I hung out with her a lot,” says Justice. “She helped fill what was missing.”

Indeed, most summers, Justice travels south to stay with his grandmother, where the two of them will spend time at her home in a retirement community talking and reading.

It’s a little slower pace than Justice is used to during the school year, when he pitches in on school projects that run the gamut, from a Secret Santa enterprise to volunteering with the GR Drive basketball team, to his school’s debate team.

During his sophomore year, Justice was selected as part of an elite trio of students who took part in a nine-day trip to China, where he visited the Model UN in Tianjin and visited Amway businesses. He shared his experience in formal ways with, among other groups, the Grand Rapids Board of Education and GRPS Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal.

He hopes to study accounting or a related field, and get into a business “that’s stimulating and challenging.” In the meantime, he’s as apt to let any grass grow beneath his feet as Hannibal, explaining: “I like to stay busy; there’s a lot of stuff to do in life, and wasting time is not an effective way of using it.”

That sort of attitude has prompted the attention of teachers like Brenda Cook, who helped nominate Justice. In a letter to the Giants committee, she wrote, “Justice is a stellar student on paper, but for me, what I see behind the scenes is what really solidifies his leadership and ethics as a person. … This young man has a limitless future and will change lives.”

No Crowd-Followers Here

Justice’s advice for today’s teens and 20-somethings is to “find people who really care about you, whether that’s friends or mentors,” noting that “I try to surround myself with like-minded individuals.”

Hannibal echoes the same sentiment. “Don’t follow the crowd,” he advises. “That’s a good way to get you to not graduate, and instead into a juvenile center.

“You want to dress and present yourself like you’re going somewhere in life. None of that sagging pants stuff.”

“No matter where you go,” says Justice, “problems will still follow you. You can’t escape them by going somewhere different.

“It’s no use running away. You’ve got to face them.”

Spoken like a pair of true Giants.

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Tom Rademacher
Tom Rademacher
Tom Rademacher was long-time reporter and columnist for The Grand Rapids Press, where he specialized in wringing the extraordinary from the seeming ordinary.


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