Wyatt Lewis spent the first half of his life in Huntsville, living in a double-wide trailer with his parents, grandparents and two older brothers. It was a humble lifestyle but an enjoyable one, he said, with plenty of family around and opportunities to explore the outdoors and interact with animals.
About a decade ago, when he was 9 years old, that way of life was uprooted.
"My parents have always struggled with drug addiction, and then it got worse," Lewis said. "One night, a couple weeks before my 10th birthday, they committed second-degree murder and possession of methamphetamine. Then everything changed."
Lewis said his parents have been imprisoned ever since and are now serving sentences at a state prison near Waco. He and his brothers, Chance and Gage, continued to stay with their grandparents for a little while after their parents' arrest, and then moved to the Houston area to live with their mother's sister and brother-in-law.
The Lewis brothers have remained in Cypress with Robert and Emily Burelsmith, who Wyatt said have provided support along with being positive role models. Now Wyatt is 18 and set to make another big move, although for a much more pleasant reason.
He recently graduated with cum laude honors from Cy-Fair High School, and next week he'll move to College Station to start school at Texas A&M University. Wyatt will have help from the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, which last weekend awarded him and nearly 500 other young Texans college scholarships worth $20,000 apiece.
Wyatt said he aspires to work in the construction business like his uncle, Robert Burelsmith, who is a vice president for E.E. Reed Construction. Another one of his goals is to be the first person from his immediate family to graduate from college.
"I'm super excited for it," he said. "It's a great opportunity, not just for me but all the kids they gave scholarships to."
The rodeo this year awarded a total of $10 million to 494 students from across Texas, based on academic performance, leadership and financial need. Other hardships were not a factor in the selection process, according to a spokesperson for the rodeo, but some other recipients also have had extended separations from their parents, either because of death or abuse.
Rodeo CEO Chris Boleman said he is glad to support what he called a "very diverse group" of scholarship recipients, about 23 percent of whom were the first in their immediate families to graduate from high school, with 29 percent of recipients being the first in their families to attend college. Boleman said he was not part of the selection process but got to meet some of the recipients, including Wyatt, at a picnic held for the honorees.
Wyatt said he was in the top third of his graduating class at Cy-Fair, where he participated in theater and wrestling. He also is an Eagle Scout and plays the drums and guitar, saying he's an avid fan of rock and metal music.
"I got to spend some time and got to meet him," Boleman said. "He's certainly a young man that has a very bright future. He's got a great head on his shoulders. I'm really looking forward to seeing his long-term success."
Wyatt said he has not seen his parents in person since before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, although he remains in regular contact with them through phone and video calls. His father is serving a 99-year sentence, Wyatt said, while his mother was sentenced to 14 years.
He described his parents as "amazing people" who "just made bad choices."
"I tell them everything that's going on, and they're really proud to see me grow," he said.
Wyatt's aunt and uncle in Cypress have helped to nurture that growth. He said the Burelsmiths were a stabilizing force for him and his brothers, who are now in their 20s and working to become electricians.
The Burelsmiths also set examples for Wyatt and his brothers, who were in need of one to follow.
"Seeing how my uncle grew up and where he is now, that shows me that I can do the same," Wyatt said. "That definitely drives me, seeing what could happen if I take one path and what can happen if I choose to go one way rather than the other."