Scholarship transforms heartbreak into hope

Community efforts ensure remembrance of life cut short; support future doctor

Neema Patel and Wanda Gibb's family

Second -year medical student Neema Patel is the first recipient of the Wanda Gibbs Scholarship. Patel is pictured with Wanda's parents, sister and her sister's sons. 

In April 2002, tragedy struck the family of 8-year-old Wanda Gibbs.

It was like any other school morning. Wanda was preparing to board the school bus that would take her to class at Brennan Elementary School in Columbia, where she was an honor roll student in the second grade.

But her dreams of learning to play piano and becoming a surgeon were cut horribly short that morning when a woman driving a car disregarded the school bus stop sign. The vehicle hit the back of the bus, careened around it and hit Wanda. Physicians at Prisma Health Children’s Hospital, then Palmetto Health, worked tirelessly to save Wanda, but she succumbed to her injuries six days later.

In the days following Wanda’s death, her family, friends and many community members came together in an effort to ensure Wanda’s memory would live on through the impact of helping others. They launched a fundraising initiative that would lead to the endowment of the Wanda Gibbs Scholarship at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine Columbia.

The scholarship serves as a remembrance of Wanda and is an investment in the health and quality of life in South Carolina through the School of Medicine’s impact. The endowment came from contributions as small as $5 to larger amounts raised by the Columbia Police Department, where Wanda’s father was an officer, and from the PTA of Brennan Elementary, resulting in a total initial investment of $10,000.

The scholarship is designated for students from Richland School District 1 who demonstrate strong academic performance and show an interest in pursuing a medical degree in pediatrics, surgery or critical care. Preference is also given to students from underrepresented groups in medical schools.

The endowment has now earned enough to fund scholarships for students well into the future. The School of Medicine recently awarded the first Wanda Gibbs Scholarship in 2019 to Neema Patel, a second-year medical student.

“It means more than just financial assistance for me,” says Patel, who wants to pursue a career in surgery, just like Wanda had planned. “This is about her family, her friends and the community investing and supporting not only my future career in medicine but also others who may benefit from the scholarship.”

Patel, who is one year younger than Wanda would have been, entered Brennan Elementary in second grade, the year after Wanda died. Patel is a 2013 graduate of A.C. Flora High School and a 2017 graduate of South Carolina, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from the College of Arts and Sciences.

It means more than just financial assistance for me. This is about her family, her friends and the community investing and supporting not only my future career in medicine but also others who may benefit from the scholarship.

Neema Patel, medical student and first recipient of the Wanda Gibbs Scholarship

Wanda was a vivacious girl, always smiling and full of laughter. For her parents, the awarding of the scholarship means their daughter’s life has meaning and her memory will be forever ingrained with the School of Medicine.

“Wanda always wanted to help heal someone and she was always concerned about others,” says her mother, Crystal Hicks.

Lyman Gibbs, Wanda’s father, expressed his gratitude for the doctors and specialists who worked so hard in trying to save his daughter’s life.

“We hope that because of this scholarship in Wanda’s name that Neema will be able to provide care for someone else in need. This is how my daughter lives on. It is a true blessing,” he says.

Wanda’s family presented Patel with a crystal award as a remembrance of the scholarship and of Wanda.

“I could see the love and support they had for Wanda,” Patel says. “They were able to pass that same support on to me and to continue her hopes and dreams. It was all very symbolic.” 

How you can help

If you would like to help grow the endowment for the Wanda Gibbs Scholarship, contact the School of Medicine's senior director of development Kim Riggi at or 803-216-3314.

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