Success despite obstacles: Five high school seniors who overcame struggles to achieve their goals

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comMay 29, 2013 

Suffering with an alcoholic father.

Dropping out of school as a sophomore.

Getting pregnant as a senior and failing the high school graduation test.

Being diagnosed with Graves' disease.

Any of those setbacks could have been reasons to not graduate from high school. But these local students rose above those obstacles and used them as motivation to succeed.

And then there was the student who admits he used to hang out with the wrong crowd but whose heroic actions helped make sure his school's awards night won't be remembered as the site of a tragedy.

These students are examples of why high school graduations are occasions to celebrate. Each graduate has a story to tell. Today, the Ledger-Enquirer shares a few inspirational ones.

Vega Colon, Jordan High

Vega failed ninth grade after playing hooky 140 of the 180 school days. He got so far behind in school, he dropped out in 10th grade. But he refused to drop out of his life.

"I realized I was all alone while all my friends were going to school," he said. "I wasn't doing anything with my life, and I wondered if I was going to regret this. I felt like less than a person."

So he returned to school and found a reason to stay through his carpentry excellence in SkillsUSA competitions. He finished second in the region as a junior and first as a senior.

"That was kind of my own proof to myself," he said. "It showed that, even with what I did in the past, it still was possible to succeed.

"Your loved ones and friends all tell you, but it feels like a cliche until you actually show yourself."

Vega has been Facebooking and texting friends to try to get their leftover graduation tickets to accommodate about 20 of his family members who want to attend. Other than a cousin, he will be the first in his family to graduate from high school.

"I promised my mom I would graduate," he said. "Everybody kept telling me I had so much potential, but I was just wasting it. I guess letting everyone down brought me back up."

The North Columbus Exchange Club recognized Vega's turnaround with its Accepting the Challenge of Excellence Award.

With his positive attitude, Vega developed more than himself. He has helped build five Habitat for Humanity houses since he began working with the organization part-time in October. He plans to work full-time with Habitat while pursuing certification in various construction skills.

"The volunteers and partner families are what make Habitat so amazing," he said. "I get to work with people who never even picked up a hammer, and, by the end of the day, I can have them building a wall. It's also a great feeling knowing you're giving somebody a home who has had trouble finding housing."

Jordan construction teacher Mike McCraine marveled at Vega going from a dropout to a straight-A student.

"He's become one of those students I could tell him to do something and he just gets it done," McCraine said. "He figures stuff out on his own. I can't say enough about him, how much he turned around. I wish we could do that for all of them."

Dylan Elliott, Harris County

Dylan's inspirational story is more about what happened near the end of his high school career.

As he waited for the honors program to start May 6 in the Harris County High School auditorium, he took a cellphone call from his girlfriend, Amanda Hand. She told him that as she and her father, James Hand, approached the auditorium, they saw an elderly woman having trouble breathing.

Amanda knew Dylan was trained to address such an emergency as a volunteer firefighter the past three years for the department in Shiloh, where his father is assistant chief.

Dylan rushed out of the auditorium and saw the woman sitting on the ground and panicking as she couldn't get her inhaler to work.

"I tried to get her pulse, and that's when she went unresponsive," Dylan said. "I performed chest compressions while Mr. Hand did mouth-to-mouth and my dad got on the phone and called 911."

By the time the ambulance arrived 2 minutes later, the woman was responsive.

Dylan returned to the ceremony as if nothing unusual happened and calmly received his award for welding. But his mind was elsewhere.

"I was thinking whether she was all right," he said.

The next day, he learned the woman was recovering in the hospital. She is home now and doing well, he said.

As the story got around the school and community, folks called Dylan a hero. He shrugged off his deed.

"I just let my training kick in and did something that needed to be done," he said.

Dylan acknowledged, however, the significance of the moment, considering that he gave up football to train as a firefighter.

"It makes me feel great that I actually can get down and help somebody in my community," he said. "It makes me realize what I chose for a career is the right choice."

He recalled "hanging out with the wrong people. A lot of them I was friends with, they got in trouble for stuff like breaking-and-entering and having stuff on them they shouldn't, and I'm glad I got away from that."

Dylan plans to finish his training and certification and hopes to become a full-time paid firefighter in a local department.

Harris County principal Roger Couch described Dylan as a dependable part of the school.

"He's not a lover of academics, but he's the salt of the earth," Couch said. "If we needed something done, he'd do it."

For example, Dylan would show up at 3 a.m. to start grilling the pork butts to feed 500 during the school's annual Veterans Day event. He also helped run the school's Special Olympics program.

"Kids like Dylan make it all worthwhile," Couch said.

Adriana Embus, Brookstone

Adriana received the Brookstone Honor Scholarship, which covers tuition for all four years at the private school.

"I was introduced to a part of society I'd never seen," she said. "They ask you where you're going to college, not if."

In elementary and middle school at Our Lady of Lourdes, Adriana spent as much time as she could away from her Columbus home. She tried to avoid seeing her father get drunk and abuse her mother.

"I didn't have a lot of friends because I didn't want to bring them home to play," she said. "I was scared he would show up."

Adriana said it took her threatening to leave home as a ninth-grader to convince her mother to move away with her to another home in the city. As a second-grader, she also found a refuge at Girls Inc., where now as a volunteer she returns the mentoring she received.

"I realized my story is easy compared to some other people," she said. "I learned that it will be better if you just find the motivation in your life."

In her Hispanic community, she said, Adriana saw too many of her fellow teenage girls be more intent on impressing boys than teachers.

"The majority of them wanted to go out to clubs, and my mom never allowed me to do that," she said. "She wanted me to get my education. I was mad and didn't understand that until now. I'm so happy she did that."

Adriana earned a 4.48 grade-point average while taking 11 honors classes and nine Advanced Placement courses at Brookstone. She started a composting program to dispose of uneaten food from the school cafeteria.

She also acted in Brookstone theater productions. She was president of the Columbus Youth Advisory Council, tutored children at Open Door Community House and worked part-time jobs at Chick-fil-A and as a runner at a law firm.

Last year, Adriana was one of girls in the nation to receive a $15,000 scholarship from Girls Inc. She also won the 2013 Teens Who Care scholarship from the local Junior League.

Adriana will attend Yale University, where she has a full scholarship. She plans to be a neurologist; she also wants to start a nonprofit organization that helps immigrants.

Frances Berry, a college counselor at Brookstone, called Adriana "the whole package."

"We will be hearing from her one day, no doubt," Berry said. "She is just awesome. I can't wait to see what she does. She will take Yale by storm."

Darren Jordan, Hallie Turner

When she got pregnant her senior year at Carver High in 2003, Darren also failed the high school graduation test. She went to the Teenage Parenting Center, which now is closed, but again failed the state exam.

Darren didn't want to "settle" for a GED.

"There's nothing wrong with that, but I didn't want to give up," she said. "I sincerely wanted my high school diploma."

Now at 27, Darren will receive that diploma when she graduates Friday from Hallie Turner Private School.

From 2004-11, Darren worked as a hairstylist at Shear Elegance on Wynnton Road. Then she started her own hairstyling business in her home.

She married Charvis in 2009. She now has three children: Delia, 9; Caiden, 4; and Cameron, 2.

Delia's father "bailed out, but, by the grace of God, my husband now treats her like his own," Darren said.

She regrets getting pregnant at 18, but she didn't consider abortion or adoption, and she doesn't regret the result.

"It was rough, but my child didn't ask to be here," she said. "So this was my responsibility, and I had to take care of her.

"I'm proud to be able to survive for my child. I had a good support system, too, my whole family on my mother's side. To be honest, I've had it better than most."

Although she had a good clientele as a hairstylist, she sought a path toward college.

"In the world we live in now," she said, "you need an education to back you up."

Her achievement at Hallie Turner led to a scholarship at Chattahoochee Valley Community College, where she plans to study accounting.

"She just took this program by the horns," said Angie Griffin, the school's director. "She came in and made great grades and got her work done efficiently."

Darren also became a leader for the younger students.

"When they were struggling or messing around, she was very inspirational and helpful to them," Griffin said. "She could have given up easily and never come back, but now she is a high school graduate."

Darren praised Griffin and the Hallie Turner staff.

"I was the oldest student there, but I wasn't ashamed because they made me feel so comfortable," she said. "I had a lot of support from that school."

Frank Warren, Glenwood

Fleeing the destruction of Hurricane Katrina brought Frank Warren IV and his family from the Louisiana bayou to the Chattahoochee Valley eight years ago to live near his aunt.

Dealing with the thyroid complications of Graves' disease threatened Frank's dream of following in the footsteps of his deceased father.

Frank Warren III was a defensive lineman at Auburn University and for 13 years with the New Orleans Saints before he retired from the NFL in 1985. He was inducted into the Saints Hall of Fame in 2002 and died from a heart attack at 43 that year.

But thanks to proper medical care and his commitment to keeping his academics and athletics in good shape at Glenwood School, Frank earned a scholarship to play offensive line at Alabama State University.

"It's taken a lot of hardship, but my mom has been through a lot with me and helped me through these things," Frank said, "and so has praying to God."

Frank also is thankful for the daily phone calls from his older brother, Darrell LeBeaux, an assistant coach at Bessemer High.

Graves' disease caused Frank's weight to vary greatly on his 6-foot-4 frame throughout his high school career until his doctors recently found the proper dosage for his medication. His weight plunged 80 pounds to 254 as a sophomore at Central-Phenix City. He transferred to Russell County as a junior and then Glenwood as a senior. He finished the season at 350 pounds.

"It's been very frustrating," Frank said. "I noticed a lot of changes in my body. You feel like you're out of shape, sluggish and weak. You see other guys lifting heavier weight than you. But my teammates and everyone around me have pushed me. From my family to my friends and teammates, they got me on a real good path."

Frank's weight is up to 390 now, but he is confident he can trim down to 330 by the season opener at Alabama State.

"I've learned how strong a person I can be after going through all of this," he said.

That dedication has impressed the staff and students at Glenwood, said headmaster Frankie Mitchum.

"When he came here, Frank was behind in some of his studies," Mitchum said. "But he went for extra tutoring and got his grades up even more once he got his scholarship offer. He really buckled down to be eligible."

Mitchum noted Frank also quietly persevered on the football field.

"He has a limp in his giddy-up every once in a while, but he's never complained about his disease," Mitchum said. "I bet 90 percent of his teammates didn't know he has it."

Despite his enormous size, Frank doesn't push his weight around, Mitchum said.

"He's got an even bigger heart," the headmaster said, "so everyone loves him."

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