The final Parents' Council meeting of the 2017-18 school year was all about getting some important perspective.
The meeting held at the Student Achievement Resource Center on April 11 featured seven extraordinary speakers, seniors from each of the Cherry Creek School District's high schools who offered tales that were at once heart-rending and inspirational. Each of these young people told tales of challenges and adversity, of determination and ultimate success.
They came as part of the council's annual "Overcoming Adversity on the Path to Graduation" themed meeting, and they left an indelible impact on a crowd that included community members, teachers, administrators and CCSD Superintendent Dr. Harry Bull. Parents' Council officials handed out boxes of Kleenex as a matter of course, as emotions and tears flowed freely among audience members.
Through the stories of hardship and loss, a note of hope arose again and again. Every one of the featured students spoke of lessons learned and the power of positivity. Despite death, grief and sickness, every speaker offered a vision of hope and progress for the future.
As one administrator noted, everyone in attendance – adults included – had plenty to learn from these remarkable students.
Miranda Fincher, Cherokee Trail High School
Miranda Fincher isn't interested in fleeing from the pain in her past.
Fincher, a senior at Cherokee Trail High School, has had to face the kind of challenges that would make many want to run and hide from the world; she's successfully navigated struggles and strife that no teenager should have to face.
And she's done it without shame or hesitation.
"If there's anything I've learned in my life, it is this: Being vulnerable is the strongest thing you can be," Fincher said. "It takes guts to open up and allow the world to see every dark corner of you. But at times, we need to let go.
"Sometimes, it's OK to not be OK," she added.
When Fincher was 3 years old, her mother suffered a debilitating stroke that "didn't make sense," according to the doctors. Her mother, a promising dancer in her mid-20s, had to undergo the painful process of learning to walk and talk again, Fincher said.
This struggle was part of the backdrop of Fincher's childhood, and another difficult challenge would follow as Fincher neared her high school graduation. Last year, her father took his own life, and the tragedy posed a nearly insurmountable challenge as she worked to complete her last year of high school.
"Even though we were no longer as close as we once were, his death struck me really hard," Fincher said. "I'm really not sure what I'd do without my family. They've supported me through everything, believed in me and, more than anything, they've loved me unconditionally."
This familial support, along with the kindness and generosity of friends, teacher and staff at Cherokee Trail, ultimately helped Fincher work through the obstacles to achieve her academic goals. She's heading to the University of Denver in the fall to study ecology. Her resolve, as well as her willingness to be vulnerable and work through her demons, didn't go unnoticed by administrators at her school.
"What I want you to remember about this young woman is her heart, her determination and how genuine a person she is," Cherokee Trail Principal Kim Rauh told the crowd. "We are so proud of Miranda."
As her mother, her sister, her grandparents, her sister and her boyfriend looked on from the audience, Fincher spoke of the value of being transparent and the importance of empathy, noting that "everybody on this planet has a story to tell." She ended her address just as she started, by paying tribute to her family, the ones who taught her life's most important lessons.
"People always tell me that I look like my mom … and I'm really proud to be compared to her," Fincher "My mom taught me everything I know about life."
Jarron Lewis, Cherry Creek High School
Jarron Lewis didn't need any notes as he spoke to the dozens in attendance at the Parents' Council meeting.
The Daniels Fund Scholar and Cherry Creek High School Student Body President insisted on speaking "from the heart" as he recounted the challenges he faced on the route to earning a high school diploma. He wanted his words to be spontaneous and his message to be unfiltered.
"Going through the struggles I've gone through has made me a better person, not to be too cliché about it," Lewis said. "When one door closes, another opens, and for me, it's been multiple doors … I'm so glad that I can stand up here and share it with you."
Lewis was earnest as he spoke about the personal challenges that started during his sophomore year at Cherry Creek High School. His mother, a single parent working hard to raise her son, faced financial struggles, and the pair was evicted from their apartment. Lewis had to face all of the normal stress and pressure of high school while also living out of hotel rooms and friends' houses.
An even greater hardship followed. In 2016, Lewis' mother passed away.
"Taking all that struggle of hopping from place to place and then having the one person who was there to support you, to be that rock for you be gone was really hard," Lewis said. "Going to school, it was hard trying to be vulnerable, to share that story and get help and support."
Somehow, Lewis found the strength to seek out that encouragement. Friends and peers offered their assistance and aid; in them, he found a sense of community and family, and enough stability to focus on academic and personal success.
"I feel like my mom would be so proud of me," Lewis said. "Earning the Daniels Fund scholarship – it's felt like an amazing gift. I'm so glad that I can be a success story, especially at Cherry Creek, with all of the adversity that I've faced."
Cherry Creek High School Principal Ryan Silva was on hand to put Lewis' achievements in perspective. Specifically, he spoke about the considerable demands attached to earning a Daniels Fund honor.
"Winning that scholarship is kind of like winning the lottery, except it's not about luck. It's about hard work and being a special person," CCHS Principal Ryan Silva said. "He is just that."
Lewis will carry lifelong lessons with him when he heads to the University of Kansas next year to study architecture. He'll never underestimate the value of moral support and understanding, where it comes from.
"Community and family doesn't have to be blood, and it's been the most important factor in my life," he said.
Jack Leven, Eaglecrest High School
A case of pneumonia in fifth grade changed the course of Jack Leven's academic experience in the Cherry Creek School District.
What started as extreme fits of coughing and abdominal pain during the illness eventually turned out to be symptoms of an extreme intestinal stomach condition, one that prevented Leven from processing food correctly.
"Food would just build up in my body," Leven said. "It was extremely painful. I would end up missing school for months at a time, just because it was almost impossible to sit up in class and learn."
For Leven, that meant a middle and high school career that included long stretches of studying and working at home through the district's Home Hospital program. Leven completed class exercises and took tests from home. In high school, he even sat for Advanced Placement exams at home with a proctor monitoring his progress. He recalls sitting in bed "doing homework all day."
The effect of the isolation could be discouraging and depressing. Learning isn't supposed to occur in a vacuum, and missing out on the social aspects of a public school education took a toll.
"It's a very lonely experience, having to miss school for most of the time. For me, it added a bunch of extraneous stress and increased my chronic depression," Leven said. "I want to thank my family and my friends, because without them, I don't even know if I'd be here talking to you guys."
Thanks to that support, Leven found a pathway through the debilitating depressing and dark thoughts. He drew on his own strength and worked hard to put his situation into perspective, thinking of the larger course of his own life and struggles.
"I've always been a positive person," Leven said. "I like to think about the resilience of mankind and what being strong actually means."
For Leven, being strong has meant allowing himself to remain positive and find a route to academic success. He's also planning on pursuing a course that will take him out of his house and put him in front of a crowd – he plans to study theater at the Metropolitan State University of Denver.
Though Leven completed much of his high school learning from the vantage of his own home, his strength and persistence haven't gone unnoticed by the larger Eaglecrest and CCSD community.
"(Jack) is really an incredible model for us as adults," said Eaglecrest High School Principal Gwen Hansen-Vigil. "Jack has certainly been a teacher to all of us."
Liliana Chavez, Endeavor Academy
Endeavor Academy Assistant Principal Lara Kibbee told the attendees gathered at the Parents' Council meeting to expect a compelling and inspirational story.
She was introducing Liliana Chavez, a senior at Endeavor who's high school career hardly followed a traditional course.
"When you hear what she's accomplished this year, you will be amazed," Kibbee said.
Indeed, Chavez's senior year at Endeavor is an undeniable success story, an example of determination, hard work and accomplishments. As she's preparing for graduation, Chavez is also finalizing plans to attend college and study nursing.
This path wasn't guaranteed. Chavez describes her high-school experience as a "roller coaster," one highs and lows. From a freshman year that saw her earning straight As and playing an active role in activities, she had to face tragedy and disillusion. She experienced bullying that drove her to thoughts of suicide, and the tragic death of her brother during her junior year was one of many factors that drove her to drop out.
"I started avoiding all the classes and homework by ditching," Chavez said. "I fell behind and I couldn't catch up … I felt like the only way I could escape the pressure was to drop out. My relationship with my parents deteriorated quickly."
Chavez spoke of leaving home for two months, of staying at her boyfriend's house or sleeping in his car. She recalled a moment of clarity, one where she realized that a change would only arrive with a dramatic shift in attitude. She applied to Endeavor, went through interviews and was wait-listed. When she received the acceptance call, the considerable odds she faced couldn't dissuade her.
"I was an entire school year behind in credits, but I was determined to work my butt off," she said. "I took a full load, earned work study and took several online courses. I'm now graduating on time with the class of 2018.
"What I've really learned in high school is that I can accomplish anything I want," she added.
Irene "Ellie" White, Grandview High School
Ellie White spoke with confidence and clarity as she introduced herself to the assembled crowd.
"I'm 16 years old. I'm graduating from Grandview High School this May, and unfortunately, I have a terminal rare genetic disorder called Wolfram Syndrome," she said.
White didn't hesitate as she described the disorder, an exceedingly rare illness. When she was diagnosed at the age of 3, White was the only known case in Colorado; the chances of contracting the syndrome are one in 700,000. For White, the syndrome has impacted her vision – she's legally blind.
"The vision loss is not correctable," White said. "It makes it really hard to do any school work, so I'm very thankful that my mom is so supportive. She basically has gone through another four years of high school with me, helping me read all my books."
White's openness about her condition isn't anything new. She's worked hard to spread awareness about Wolfram Syndrome and tell her story to as many people as possible, and she's found national platforms to tell her story.
White's dance troupe, The Silhouettes, were featured on the sixth season of the nationally televised program "America's Got Talent" – they came in second. She's also the subject of "A Light in the Shadow," a documentary detailing her journey and her accomplishments. White has also presented her story at the U.S. Capitol with Colorado Sen. Michael Bennett, and brought her campaign for awareness all the way to the White House.
All of these incredible accomplishments have come in a relatively short time.
"It's fun to talk to her today and see how far she's come," said Grandview Principal Lisa Sprague.
All of White's hard work and impressive accomplishments are part of a greater mission to increase awareness and deconstruct misconceptions about Wolfram Syndrome, one she plans to continue as she heads to the Community College of Aurora in the fall.
"I don't let anything ever stop me," White said. "I've made my own nonprofit called the Ellie White Foundation for Rare Genetic Disorders. I'm going to keep pushing – for me, failure is not an option."
Nebyat Demessie, Overland High School
In July of 1999, on a cold and windy night, Nebyat Demessie's mother was near death in a candlelit room in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. She was in labor, delivering her daughter in conditions that many in the United States would consider antiquated.
"She had nothing at her side, except for a midwife and candles," Demessie said, pointing to the lack of quality healthcare and economic opportunity. "Ethiopia has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world."
Demessie and her mother defied these odds, as well as a host of other challenges. Demessie's father left the family before she was born, and her mother had to raise her daughter alone, sharing a cramped space with other family members and looking for any honest work she could find.
Through it all, Demessie's mother stressed the importance of education to her daughter. That value was a driving force behind Demessie's decision to leave her native Ethiopia and head to Aurora, Colorado, three years ago. Demessie moved to the United States on her own, speaking little English and hardly prepared for the cultural differences that were in store.
"When I was on the way to the airport, all I could do was cry," Demessie said. "I said, 'I'll see you soon, mom,' and she watched me as I walked away … I was heartbroken and afraid."
Still, she persisted, learning the language quickly and finding a route to academic success at Overland High School. To make it to school every day, she undertook an hour-and-a-half bus ride; between maintaining a part-time job to earn money to send to her mother every month, Demessie also secured a spot in the National Honor Society and earned a 4.1 GPA.
All of her work and struggle aligns with the values that her mother worked so hard to impart as a single parent working to support her family in Ethiopia. As she prepares for graduation from Overland and finalizes plans to head to the University of Colorado Boulder in the fall, her most earnest hope is that her mother can somehow make it to her graduation ceremony.
Demessie wants her mother to see that the lessons about the importance of education made an impact. She wants her mother to know that she's created a life of value and importance in the U.S.
"I know that I'm not here alone," she said, speaking to the friends, family and teachers who helped her make the adjustment to a new culture and a new country. "Thank you for making my mom proud of me."
Jacqueline Kamlet, Smoky Hill High School
Jacqueline Kamlet learned about investment and involvement from her mother, who served as a teacher in the Cherry Creek School District for nearly 20 years.
"Some of my fondest memories come from being with my mom when she was in class as a substitute teacher, as well as having my mom as a Girl Scout Leader every year in elementary school," Kamlet told the crowd. "I treasure these memories, as well as the stories former students tell me about my mom.
"Everyone remembers her as someone who was caring, enthusiastic, encouraging and involved," she added.
These memories have served as a source of inspiration and strength for Kamlet in the four years since she lost her mother to breast cancer. Her mother passed barely a month after Kamlet's fourteenth birthday, and she recalled how rapidly the tragedy changed her life.
"In the blink of an eye, I had to grow up," Kamlet said. "The past four years have been challenging."
Her mother's example was a source of strength through those challenges. Kamlet was determined to make a difference in the life of her school and the greater world. In addition to serving on student government, taking part in Smoky Hill's International Baccalaureate program and being an active member in the school's DECA organization, Kamlet has traveled to Costa Rica to log more than 1,000 hours of community service.
She's become one of Smoky Hill's most active and conscientious students, working to make the school and the community a better place, according to Smoky Hill Principal Chuck Puga.
"If there's something going on at Smoky Hill, Jacqueline is involved in it," Puga said. "She is going to be missed next year."
Kamlet will bring that same dedication to service when she heads to the University of Nebraska next year to study nonprofit work with the ultimate goal of working for the Make A Wish Foundation and making life better for kids facing challenges. She knows it's what her mother would have wanted.
"I had to face my worst fear four years ago," Kamlet said. "But through the support of the Cherry Creek School District, my teachers and my community, I am confident that I have what it takes to take my experiences and make a difference in the lives of others."