MARY ANN ANDERSON
At just 10 years old, academically-acclaimed Jeff Davis Elementary School student Nate Saunders finds science intriguing and fascinating.
Nate, who will be in 5th grade in the fall, made a dramatic if not phenomenal showing at the Junior Beta Convention in Oklahoma City, Okla., in June. In fact, he won the Elementary Beta National Championship in 4th grade science.
“When Nate finished his test, I asked him how he thought he had done,” says Bonnie Saunders, his mother. “He said, ‘I’m pretty sure I did good.’ Then I asked him how many he had to guess, and he answered two. It was a test of 50 questions, and he had to guess at only two.”
The story of how the gifted young man named Nathan Jared “Nate” Saunders made the journey from Hazlehurst to winning top honors at the convention begins with his parents, Nathan and Bonnie Bleu Chapman Saunders.
Nathan, the son of Danny and Jessie Saunders of Hazlehurst, and Bonnie, the daughter of Jan Chapman Phipps of Uvalda and Ray and Dian Hester of Moultrie, attended school together. He graduated from Jeff Davis High School in 1993, and she in 1994.
“We were in the enrichment program together, we were in the gifted program together,” she says. “That’s all we knew of each other.”
They didn’t keep in touch after high school, but then their paths crossed again on the Fourth of July in 2007. Bonnie had just finished nursing school when they met on that hot summer day. Almost immediately they began to date, and on the following Valentine’s Day they married. Bonnie, already a registered nurse, encouraged Nathan to also earn his nursing degree.
“In our now 11 years together, we have moved mountains,” Bonnie says. “I graduated from nursing school, I sent Nathan to nursing school, we had two kids, we bought a house, and there’s been nothing slow about it.”
The couple’s second son, Daniel Bleu, is 7 years old. The family is rounded out by a German Shepherd named Rika.
Plenty of people ask Bonnie from where her and Daniel’s middle name of Bleu — the French spelling of blue — was conjured. Her parents were fans of “Gone With the Wind” and liked the name of Bonnie Bleu, Rhett Butler and Scarlet O’Hara’s daughter.
Nathan had worked at both Husqvarna and Hazlehurst Mills before he went to nursing school. His RN degree is from South Georgia State College, as is Bonnie’s Bachelor of Science in Nursing. Both work at Jeff Davis Hospital where Bonnie wears several hats as its quality manager, accreditation coordinator, infection prevention nurse, and employee health nurse.
Nursing is all in the family, as is Jeff Davis Hospital, as Jan is also a registered nurse and works in the Behavioral Health Unit. Marshall Hulett, Bonnie’s sister Jeanette’s son (and Jan’s grandson) is a nurse at the hospital, too.
For those who don’t know and may be wondering, Pat Chapman, Hazlehurst’s longtime antiques dealer and beloved citizen who helped raise Bonnie and Jeanette, is Jan’s sister. Decades ago, the Chapman family founded Chapman’s, a nursing and convalescent home now known as Hazlehurst Court Care and Rehab, owned by Beacon Health Management.
So the story is as much about the family as it is Nate.
“We’ve always known he was smart,” says Bonnie.
Nate is not just smart, but Beta Club smart. He was invited to join the elementary version of the club when he was just in the fourth grade. The junior and senior versions of the club exist for older students through grade 12.
Nate’s forte is science, although he’s also adept at math and social studies. When the Beta Club state convention rolled around last November in Savannah, Nate chose to participate in the 4th grade science competition.
“There were thousands of students there,” explains Bonnie. “We were worn out at the end of the day, but they still hadn’t called out the academics. I told Nate that they may not call his name, and that it was a privilege to just be there.”
Finally, the announcers began to call the top five competitors to the stage. Bonnie was holding an exhausted Nate in her lap as the names were announced.
“He was wrapped up in a blanket, and then they called his name,” she shines as she remembers the moment. “They called out fifth place, and then fourth. When they called out number two, I lost it. My baby had won. He spun out of that blanket and out of my lap and to the stage.”
That first place showing guaranteed him a spot at the national convention in Oklahoma City, and the family immediately made plans to travel there and add in vacation time.
“We wanted to make it the biggest vacation we could,” Bonnie says. “We’ve never been on a vacation, really. Nathan and I have always worked opposite schedules because we have kids.”
Armed with the Roadtrippers app that frequent family traveler Brooke Bowen Reagin recommended, the family of four took off to Oklahoma, making stops at Stone Mountain in Georgia, the NASA Visitors Center and waterfalls sites in Alabama, and the Memphis Hall of Fame and Hard Rock Café in Tennessee before their last stop in Oklahoma City, where they visited Science Museum Oklahoma, a special treat for budding scientist Nate.
That Saturday, Nate took his test at the convention. While scores are not announced, he once more won first place in the science division for 4th graders. It was indeed an exciting time for the Saunders family and proud moment for all of Jeff Davis County.
The return trip to Hazlehurst took them on a loop through Arkansas, where they saw an old watermill that is the last standing filming location from the movie “Gone With the Wind,” as well as Dallas, New Orleans, and Tuscumbia, Ala., to see Helen Keller’s birthplace.
“We had a great experience and made a lot of memories,” says Bonnie. “They were a great age for it.”
The road to Oklahoma City was also paved by plenty of local support, including both Nathan and Bonnie’s parents and siblings, Elementary Beta Club sponsor Dana McLeod, and Jeff Davis Elementary School teacher Brenda Brown.
Says Bonnie, “Brenda Brown was Nate’s second grade teacher, and she really brought out how much knowledge he had. She really tried to expand what he knew. She really did a lot to bring it all together. We’ve had some of the greatest teachers who have pushed developing science with him.”
Nate has wanted to be a scientist since he was in pre-kindergarten. Bonnie says that he stood up in his first pre-k class and stated in a most manner-of-fact voice, “My name is Nate Saunders and I want to be a scientist.”
The tyke has always been interested in science — he counts Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton among his role models — and Bonnie further points out that he is interested in “tiny science, micro things.”
Younger brother Daniel, even at the age of 7 and who is also gifted, has decided to be an engineer.
“Daniel loves science, too,” says Bonnie, “but he wants to be an engineer. He likes to build things. He’s also a social butterfly, but Nate, not so much.”
Bonnie also points out that Daniel is a “superhero” fan.
“Every day he’s a different superhero and loves it,” she says.
On the trip to Oklahoma, the family dined at Supper Heroes, a unique restaurant in Alabama that focuses on comic book heroes, among them Captain America, Superman, Spiderman, and Batman.
“We try to promote Nate and Daniel’s imaginations as much as possible, both of them,” says Bonnie. “We really try to promote them being close, try to let them know how much they need each other.”
Bonnie relates many stories about Nate but recalls one substitute teacher telling her that Nate is a “curious one” and always asking questions about everything.
She adds, “If you don’t have patience to answer those questions, he won’t fulfill what all he needs. And we make sure we take the time to answer his questions or find the answers if we don’t know them.”
Before Nate could even walk, he was already the budding scientist at not even a year old.
“It was my husband’s first Father’s Day,” Bonnie remembers. “He woke up on Sunday morning, and Nate had put Desitin, teabags, and cooking oil in the coffee pot. He was only nine months old. He’s always wanting to mix something to see what happens. He saw us making coffee, and he was trying to do it, too.”
The family does as much together as they can. They have a pool, so they swim a great deal, and they also enjoy playing games and often have game nights where they pull out the Scrabble or Monopoly board or the Twister mat.
Nathan and Bonnie are so family-oriented that they keep a huge bulletin board in their living room for everyone to see.
“I showcase the boys’ schoolwork throughout the year,” Bonnie explains. “I don’t take anything down until that school year is over. I just continue adding to the board, making a collage and stacking papers and projects along the way. We want the boys to know that we cherish all of their schoolwork and want them to know just how important all of it is to us.”
Nate and his family are looking forward to hopefully going back to the state Beta Club convention in Savannah and the national championships that will next year take place in Fort Worth, Texas.
Says Bonnie of her smarter-than-the-average-bear son, “He knows he’s a nerd, and we are a family of nerds, and that’s okay. Nerds are winners.”