ROCK FALLS – As teachers were preparing to make their return to the classroom, a former Rock Falls Middle School student dropped by to return the words of encouragement he received there as a young man.
Justin Bennett, 40, is president and CEO of Geodata IT in St. Louis. Geodata, founded in 2012, provides information technology and geography information systems solutions for the Department of Defense and the intelligence community.
Bennett, whose struggling parents expected him to work while attending school, has held a job since the tender age of 12.
“I did not have a support system growing up – no one to tell me to do my homework,” he told teachers Tuesday during the back-to-school-for-staff day at Rock Falls Middle School.
He did, however, get support from former Principal Jeff Brown, who said his heart went out to the impoverished child.
“Mr. Brown simply told me that I could do more,” Bennett said.
With Brown’s encouragement, Bennett said he chose not to be a victim of circumstance. “I just tried to stay involved in school and kept up with my academics.”
It paid off.
He graduated from Rock Falls High School in 1998, then joined the Air Force, where he got “my first taste of information technology,” he said.
Bennett earned a master’s of business administration, with an emphasis in management information systems from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, after getting his bachelor’s in MIS from Park University, and his associate in applied science from the Community College of the Air Force.
He also is a 2016 graduate of the Small Business Administration’s Emerging Leaders Program.
It was not only Brown who believed in Bennett – his teachers did, too, Brown said.
“My life motto is become the one you dream you can be,” Brown said, adding that he tried to instill that in all his students.
Principal Kyle Ackman invited Bennett to speak because he wants his teachers to hear stories of students who persevered.
“I want our teachers to help construct the path to making our kids successful,” Ackman said.
“I chose to be the author of my own story, and I use my story and experience to help shape others,” Bennett told them. “I challenge you to be just a little better; maybe be the person that helps students live their dreams.”