It was impossible to hold back tears during the Cherry Creek Schools Parents' Council meeting held April 13 at the Student Achievement Resource Center.
The council hosted 13 extraordinary high school seniors, students set to graduate in May who each boasted extraordinary stories. The group exemplified the theme of the presentation, titled "Overcoming Adversity on the Path to Graduation."
They spoke about loss and struggle, violence and addiction, long journeys and seemingly impossible odds. These students will receive diplomas after facing incredible hardships, from losing parents to battling life-threatening illnesses. The impact of their stories was palpable – parents, students, teachers and administrators alike took full advantage of the many boxes of tissues placed strategically around the room.
"Thank you for being courageous," Cherry Creek School District Superintendent Dr. Harry Bull said, speaking to the students after their presentations. "Adults go to work every day and they work real hard to take care of our kids. You heard that in the comments today. Sometimes life is not easy … That's what K-12 public education is."
What follows is a summary of some these students' extraordinary and inspiring stories.
Jenna Spille, Cherokee Trail High School
Every new morning carried a recycled sense of grief for Cherokee Trail High School senior Jenna Spille.
In August, 2012, Spille was diagnosed with brain cancer. Doctors explained that Jenna's stage-four tumor carried a 19 percent chance of survival, a grim prognosis followed by multiple rounds of debilitating chemotherapy.
"It seemed like a nightmare that couldn't be real," Spille recalled. "I would forget that I had cancer when I woke up each morning and be reminded when I saw myself in the mirror."
Spille wasn't alone in waging that daily struggle to survive. She shared the fight with her parents, her larger family and the entire Cherokee Trail community. It was a battle that left plenty of scars, wounds that ranged from the physical to the psychological.
"One of my struggles was to see myself as Jenna, and seeing myself as separate from my (struggle)," she said.
That's where the strong network of family, friends and community members made a key difference. Spille found a way forward in the all-important support of her immediate family, as well as her extended connections at CT. The school honored Spille as their "Make-a-Wish Kid," and students, teachers and staff alike came together to offer a way forward.
|"I used to think all that mattered in life was what people thought of my personality and my looks," she said. "I now take every day by day. The things that used to matter don't seem to matter as much anymore, and I now see life in a whole new way."|
Now, mere weeks away from her graduation, Spille credits the Cherokee Trail community as a key factor in her progress, insisting their support transformed the high school into a bona fide family. More importantly, all the outpouring of support offered her a brand new outlook.
"I used to think all that mattered in life was what people thought of my personality and my looks," she said. "I now take every day by day. The things that used to matter don't seem to matter as much anymore, and I now see life in a whole new way."
Racheal Ushindi, Cherokee Trail High School
Racheal Ushindi was only 10 years old when she had to make the kind of difficult decision most will never face.
Rebels attacked Ushindi's home in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Ushindi and her sisters made the choice to flee. It was a path that would steer the siblings away from the violence and uncertainty that claimed an untold number of individuals and families, but it was also a path that carried unimaginable hardships.
|"It was really hard for us; we didn't know if we were going to survive from day to day," Ushindi said. "We didn't have any parents. We didn't know where we were going."|
A long stretch of impermanence followed. Ushindi's 14-year-old sister served as the group's caretaker as they shuffled between temporary homes and refugee camps. Ultimately, Ushindi would find a new life in a new world through a refugee program, one that brought her to Cherokee Trail High School in Aurora, Colorado.
Ushindi's journey in the U.S. started 10 years ago, and the transition posed its own challenges. She had to tackle the demands of a new culture and a new language; she attended schools with peers who had known each other their entire lives.
But it was a hurdle Ushindi faced with determination and discipline, as well as the support of her adopted parents and family, as well as an entire network of teachers, counselors, staff and other supporters.
"I struggled so hard my first year of high school," Ushindi said, "but my teachers and my parents helped me. I'm so blessed to have my parents … They've treated me as their own child."
Those resources have made all the difference for Ushindi, who plans on studying social work after she graduates in May. She wants to work with children, to offer her support to those facing the kind of difficult decisions she had to tackle as a 10-year-old.
Kaelynn Maiden, Endeavor Academy
Kaelynn Maiden's philosophy about school has changed dramatically in the past four years.
As a freshman at Overland High School, Maiden admits that she'd attend school sporadically, and usually show up only for "breakfast and gym." She was hanging out with the wrong crowd, and caught up in relationships that were far more harmful than loving.
|"I cannot express how thankful I am to have a team of adults who'd go through anything to make sure I succeeded," she said.|
Along with a difficult home life, one that pitted Maiden against alcoholism and abuse, those patterns were quickly steering her toward an empty future.
It took relocating to Endeavor Academy to set Maiden on the right path.
"It ended up being just what I needed to push myself to making it to graduation," said Maiden, who's set to graduate in May. "My thoughts about school have changed so much, thanks to Endeavor's amazing staff. They've not just pushed me to do better, but they've also supported me and helped me overcome all of my troubles."
That turnaround occurred over two short years, and Maiden is now focused on the next step of her academic career. She's bound for Colorado Mesa University in the fall with designs to study psychology.
"I cannot express how thankful I am to have a team of adults who'd go through anything to make sure I succeeded," she said.
Aireanna Erickson, Endeavor Academy
(Aireanna wasn't able to attend the meeting and submitted her comments via email).
Aireanna Erickson seemed to have addiction in her genes.
The senior from Endeavor Academy had to face challenges early in life, as her closest relatives struggled with addiction and dependencies that most will never know. Those early challenges had an effect as Erickson started to carve out her own path to adulthood. Short stints at Cherokee Trail, Grandview and Eaglecrest high schools didn't last. She spent 9 months as a runaway. She faced homelessness at an age where most are worrying about school sports and homework assignments.
|"Education has been the only stable thing in my life," she said. "I can't express how thankful I am to have been given the chance to go to Endeavor Academy."|
It was the staff at Endeavor Academy who helped Erickson rewrite her life story. She started at the school as a junior, and after coming to terms with her trajectory, Erickson worked hard to reinvent herself.
The effort was far from easy, and it took the involvement and investment of the teachers, administrators and counselors to make it successful.
"I wouldn't be walking with a diploma in my hand in five week if it weren't for the teachers, deans, counselors, staff and my principal at Endeavor," Erickson said. "These people have put more effort into me than any adult has in my life."
The combined effort of Erickson and her supporters at Endeavor is set to have concrete and lasting effects. She's heading to Arapahoe Community College in the fall to study mortuary science, and she'll benefit from a $1,500 scholarship.
"Education has been the only stable thing in my life," she said. "I can't express how thankful I am to have been given the chance to go to Endeavor Academy."
Gabrielle Curry, Grandview High School
Gabrielle Curry sees life as a blessing.
It's an outlook she's maintained with rugged determination, a dogged optimism that's come despite a laundry list of debilitating health conditions. Intracranial hypertension, a chronic hormone disorder, migraines, edema, cardiac blockages – all of these issues came along with losing her grandfather to cancer.
Curry had to struggle with these challenges at a time when most are worrying about school, sports and social lives.
But Curry's outlook is stubbornly optimistic. Weeks away from graduation, she speaks of her past struggles as steps on a pathway to a meaningful life.
|"I didn't choose any of this," Curry said. "But it's what you do with what you've been dealt with that's most important."|
For Curry, those next steps have already started. After a stretch at Grandview where she admits to losing her ambition and her sense of self, she's focused squarely on a professional life rooted in empathy, persistence and care. That transition came with the help of family, teachers and counselors.
An intern at a local hospital, Curry has now set her sights on the medical field. She will start her pre-med studies at Colorado State University in the fall, and she'll draw on all the pain and struggle that marked her high school years as inspiration. Her ultimate aim, she insists, is to serve as a source of strength for others.
"I've accepted the fact that bad things happen … but what I don't accept is giving up to them," she said, recalling specific words of guidance from her grandfather. "'You have been gifted with experiences that will allow you the extraordinary opportunity to empathize with others.'"
Tara Stilwell, Grandview High School
Tara Stilwell will graduate Grandview High School in May with a 4.4 GPA.
It's a stunning achievement, one made all the more impressive by the overwhelming challenges she's had to face since sophomore year, when her mother was diagnosed with a rare form of breast cancer.
All of the tribulations that most teenagers have to face – academics, social pressures, sports and other extra-curricular demands – suddenly took a backseat to the prospect of losing her mother.
|"I believe that bad things happen to good people, but I will never understand why my mom had to go through what she did," Stilwell said. "But as unfortunate as these events were, they made me grow up a lot quicker and made me realize I have to take care of myself more and take care of my family."|
Stilwell had to meet her responsibilities through the seemingly endless rounds of chemotherapy and surgeries. She had to keep up her day-to-day life as a scholar, a student athlete and a normal teenager after her mother fell on ice and broke her femur. That injury brought additional surgeries and recovery time spent limited to the confines of a bed. All told, Stilwell missed more than 100 days of school trying to navigate the ordeal.
All of that struggle and tragedy carried hard-won lessons for Stilwell. She maintained a sterling GPA and helped her volleyball win two back-to-back state championships. She scored a 32 on the ACT test, and got accepted into nine different colleges.
Impossible questions still stick with Stilwell, but she's also carried important lessons away from her ordeals.
"I believe that bad things happen to good people, but I will never understand why my mom had to go through what she did," Stilwell said. "But as unfortunate as these events were, they made me grow up a lot quicker and made me realize I have to take care of myself more and take care of my family."
Stilwell has all the strength, smarts and skills to see her resolutions through. She's heading to the University of Southern California in the fall, and she insists that because of her hard road, she's "strong enough to handle anything."
Shannon, Eaglecrest High School
The illnesses started as early as the third grade.
As an elementary school student, Shannon faced recurring symptoms that were more serious than average growing pains. There were fevers that ran higher than 108 degrees, fatigue and other chronic symptoms that seemed to bespeak a deeper health issue.
But the word back from the doctors was never conclusive. Though the issues persisted and affected Shannon's daily routine at Eaglecrest High School, she never received a definitive diagnosis. Shannon and her family had to face all of the consequences without knowing a definite cause, despite the best work of doctors from the National Institute of Health in Maryland and other prestigious organizations.
|"I feel like I've been very lucky to have teachers, counselors and sponsors who not only understand the limitations but help me overcome them," she said. "Teaching students to overcome obstacles is the definition of a successful educator."|
"I've been to the best of the best in the Rocky Mountain region, and they haven't been able to find any diagnosis or even come close to one," she said. "They can't find a reason as to why I have what I have."
That uncertainty, combined with the very real symptoms, has offered significant roadblocks on the way to graduation. But Shannon's perseverance, combined with a support network that includes family, teachers and counselors, helped her reach her goal. She will graduate with a 4.6 GPA, and she's heading to Regis University to study computer science, chemistry and math.
"I feel like I've been very lucky to have teachers, counselors and sponsors who not only understand the limitations but help me overcome them," she said. "Teaching students to overcome obstacles is the definition of a successful educator."
Jason Hartman, Eaglecrest High School
Jason Hartman speaks with a straightforward simplicity when he discusses the health challenges he faced as a student at Eaglecrest High School.
"Life is not always easy," he said. "There will always be obstacles – some big, some small, but all of them we must overcome."
For Hartman, the biggest of those obstacles was acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Doctors diagnosed Hartman with the illness during winter break of his junior year at Eaglecrest, and the next year and a half was a case study in what he calls a "will to succeed."
In Hartman's case, that will to succeed included weekly chemotherapy sessions at the Children's Hospital Colorado, as well as enrollment in the Cherry Creek School District's home hospital program. As his peers were preparing for their final semesters on the Eaglecrest campus, Hartman was struggling to overcome a potentially fatal disease while working to keep up his academic progress.
|"Throughout the last year, I've felt the full support of the Eaglecrest community, and we're so thankful for the support they've provided to ensure that I graduate with my class," Hartman said. "I've been able to persevere."|
The fight proved successful on both fronts. He's now in remission, and he plans to walk across the stage to receive his diploma along with the rest of the Class of '15 seniors.
Julia Kamlet, Smoky Hill High School
Julia Kamlet has counted the days since her life changed forever.
The senior from Smoky Hill High School doesn't even pause to summon the statistic: 395 days. It's been 395 days since Kamlet had to make a difficult transition from childhood to adulthood. It's been 395 days since she's had to deal with the kind of grief and tragedy that no teenager should have to endure.
"My mom sat us down and told us that she had stage four breast cancer that had spread to many places," Kamlet recalled through tears. "I was numb, and I didn't know what to do."
Kamlet and her family struggled daily over the course of the following months, as her mother went through treatment after treatment and became too weak to walk down the stairs. As Kamlet tried to keep up the routine of a normal teenager and meet her responsibilities, she had to deal with the recurring prospect of losing her mother.
|"She taught me so many things. Because of her, it's reassured me that I want to become an elementary school teacher, just like her," she said.|
Between spending every night in the ICU waiting room and taking care of her younger sister, it was impossible for Kamlet to find any sense of normalcy. Still, she drew strength from her mother's determination and attitude, even as she struggled against the disease that would ultimately claim her life.
"She never gave up," Kamlet said.
Weeks before her graduation from Smoky Hill, Kamlet is still taking inspiration from that spirit of determination. She plans to attend Metropolitan State University of Denver or the University of Northern Colorado with a definite goal in mind.
"She taught me so many things. Because of her, it's reassured me that I want to become an elementary school teacher, just like her," she said. "She taught at Indian Ridge Elementary School, and every day, she would make an impact on each of her kids' lives. That is what I'm going to do in the future and carry her legacy on."
Nebiyu Tadesse, Smoky Hill High School
Nebiyu Tadesse came to the Cherry Creek School District as an overwhelmed 13-year-old who spoke no English and had little in the way of community roots.
He had emigrated to the U.S. from Ethiopia armed with fluency in Amharic and French, but only a few isolated phrases in English. During his first year in the country, as a freshman at Smoky Hill High School, he felt like he had been dropped in an alien landscape with no preparation.
"Everything was going wrong. I couldn't understand anything," Tadesse said. "I was lost."
An Amharic/English dictionary became Tadesse's best friend. He was determined to learn every word he didn't understand. He was set on building a new life in his new home. He joined as many clubs as he could, working just as hard to make social connections as he did to achieve academic success.
|"I wanted more for myself," Tadesse said, adding that he plans to study robotic engineering at CU Boulder. "I never saw myself getting to this level."|
Less than four years later, the 16-year-old Smoky Hill High School senior speaks with an assured eloquence and his words bear almost no trace of the accent of his native Ethiopia. He is careful, confident and purposeful when he speaks, particularly about his ambitious life plan.
"I wanted more for myself," Tadesse said, adding that he plans to study robotic engineering at CU Boulder. "I never saw myself getting to this level."
Tori Brown, Cherry Creek High School
Tori Brown knows another visit to the hospital may be looming on the horizon.
As a sophomore at Cherry Creek High School, she was diagnosed with paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria. Brown's red blood cells weren't producing correctly, and the resulting illnesses had the potential of derailing an otherwise normal high school career.
The most recent medical emergency was visit to the hospital on New Year's Day; Brown was intubated and she has no memory of a full week of her life. Because of her condition, it's a situation she could very well face again.
|"I feel truly blessed to be standing here and to be graduating. I've had a huge support system from my school and from my family," she said. "You deal with things one day at a time."|
But Brown isn't deterred, and she didn't let that risk get in the way of a fulfilling high school career on her road to graduation.
"I feel extremely blessed," she said. "I haven't had a bad day since then. Even just listening to my favorite song I realize it's great to be alive, because I was so close to being gone."
Brown is reveling in every moment, and she is set on bringing that attitude to the next step of her academic career. She's bound for CU Boulder in the fall, and she sees all the promise and potential in the opportunity.
Even with the prospect of future medical issues looming, Brown is fully focused on the possibilities of the future. She's learned to appreciate every moment, and she's gained a sense of resiliency and resolve that won't be dimmed by any medical condition.
"I feel truly blessed to be standing here and to be graduating. I've had a huge support system from my school and from my family," she said. "You deal with things one day at a time."
Daijah Morris, Overland High School
Daijah Morris arrived at Overland High School as a freshman with many expectations.
She looked forward to getting involved in sports and other activities. She wondered about all of the new friends she'd make and had faith that she'd meet any academic challenge. She never expected she'd have to deal with a vicious and potentially fatal attack on her father.
|"On February 3 of my sophomore year, my father was gunned down and not expected to survive," she said. "It was a shock to me, because I never thought anything would happen to him … My sophomore and junior year began to fill with up with surgeries … for both of us."|
Even as she dealt with the trauma of her father's injury, Morris had to face her own health issues. What started as pain and swelling during her time on the track team as a freshman turned out to be a congenital condition. As her father struggled to survive, Morris had to wage her own battle to maintain her health.
But thanks to the network at Overland, Morris found a way to persist on the road to graduation. She drew on the guidance of teachers and administrators to find academic success despite a number of unexcused absences. Despite the initial dreary diagnoses, her father kept up his battle to survive.
The combination of support from friends and family and rugged determination has paid off. Morris plans on attending college in the fall, and she's currently split between the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs and Southern University in Louisiana.
"I've been accepted into 11 colleges," she said. "I thank God, Overland High School and Principal Leon Lundie, who I consider to be my friend."
Prodeo Patria, Overland High School
There are plenty of panic triggers that remain for Prodeo Patria.
Large crowds, loud noises, enclosed spaces – for months and months, all of these factors reminded Patria of a single horrific night almost three years ago, when a simple trip to the movies turned into one of the greatest tragedies in Colorado history.
Patria and his family were among the hundreds who reported to the Century theater in Aurora for a midnight showing of the new Batman movie on July 20, 2012. He became one of dozens of victims of one of the worst public shootings in U.S. history.
|"I was shot in the lower back, and my mother was shot in the leg," Patria said. "I didn't feel much pain, because of the adrenaline. However, I dealt with another issue, which was mostly mental."|
"I was shot in the lower back, and my mother was shot in the leg," Patria said. "I didn't feel much pain, because of the adrenaline. However, I dealt with another issue, which was mostly mental."
In the months and years that followed, Patria tried to forget. He did his best to whitewash the tragedy from his memory, but daily routines offered unsettling reminders. He had trouble being comfortable in large crowds. During school assemblies that featured loud noise, Patria discovered a sense of panic that couldn't be eliminated through sheer force of will.
It was then that he decided to address the issue head-on, and he's seen plenty of good results from his determination. Patria has worked to deal with the mental scars left by the tragic events of 2012, and he's even incorporated his recovery into his plans for post-graduation.
"Fortunately, I persevered and I continue to achieve," he said. "I plan to study nursing at the University of Colorado Denver."