A Tucson teen who takes part in an annual program that helps homeless children capture hopes and dreams in photos moved closer Thursday to realizing one of hers: a college education.

Leiliani Martinez, 14, was surprised by a full scholarship to Blackburn College — a liberal-arts school in Carlinville, Illinois, with about 600 students — by the school’s president. He made the offer after watching a news report about the program, Pictures of Hope.

“It struck me that she was working with promising young people who would face significant financial challenges that could prevent them from going to college,” John Comerford, the school’s president said about the program’s founder, Linda Solomon. “In other words, she was working with the same population we seek to serve.”

Leiliani has lived with her mother and two siblings in housing provided by Our Family Services for five years.

Her mother, Lupita Martinez, a billing specialist at Tucson Orthopedic, said she worried about how she would pay for college for her daughter.

“She wants to be a lawyer or doctor and that takes a lot of years and money to pay for it,” she said.

Leiliana has participated in Pictures of Hope for four sessions. She was chosen for the scholarship by Solomon and Comerford.

After speaking with Comerford, Solomon said she immediately thought of Leiliani for the scholarship.

“I have watched her through the years and I admire her so very much,” Solomon said. “One of the first dreams she captured as a child was to help those who are homeless. Her heartfelt dreams are so unselfish. … This is inspirational and we can all learn from her. … Her dream to believe in herself expressed on her Pictures of Hope card last year will come true by the granting of a full-ride scholarship at the age of 14.”

Comerford and Solomon flew to Tucson to surprise Leiliani with the announcement at the Our Family Services annual luncheon at the Tucson Convention Center.

After giving a speech about Pictures of Hope and Our Family Services, Solomon called Leiliani and her mother to the stage. The two stood nervously, as they listened to what Solomon had to say in front of a crowd of nearly 300.

“When you were 12, you said your dream was to be a doctor,” Solomon began. “Last year you shared this dream: ‘My dream is to believe in me.’ Well, I believe in you. … I have a special gift for you and your mother. This bag says ‘dreams never end’ and they don’t.”

Solomon presented Martinez with a framed card and necklace, then introduced Comerford.

“There are many people, Leiliani, who believe in you. We have a very special guest that I want you to meet, John Comerford, who came here all the way from Illinois,” Solomon said. “He’s the president of Blackburn College and he wishes to grant one of your dreams. He is granting you a four-year, full college scholarship.”

Roaring applause followed. Leiliani and her mom wiped tears from their eyes.

Leiliani shared the same worries as her mother, when thinking about college: money, grades and choosing a school.

“I’m excited and happy. I don’t know how I feel, really. … I started crying,” Leiliani said. “I thought they were playing with me.”

Leiliani, an eighth-grader, is the youngest person offered a Blackburn College scholarship, Comerford said. It’s worth about $100,000.

“Leiliani is still several years away from college, but Linda described her spirit, drive and personality in such compelling ways that we decided to offer her a scholarship now that she can use when she graduates high school,” Comerford said. “The scholarship will cover tuition, room, board and required fees, so long as Leiliani qualifies for admission to Blackburn and continues to do well.”

Offering Leiliani the scholarship now shows how much others believe in the eighth-grader hoping to become a doctor or lawyer some day.

“Now, it’s up to her to live her dream,” Solomon said.

Contact Angela Pittenger at apitteng@tucson.com. On Twitter: @CentsibleMama