The Class of 2014

May 25, 2014 6:00 am

Read about some of the amazing local graduates from the Class of 2014.

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  • This spring approximately 2,000 area students will walk across the stage, wearing their mortarboard cap and gown, to receive their high school diplomas. It is a rite of passage into adulthood. For most, it is a small step in their grand plan.

    For others, however, that little scroll of paper represents so much more. We share their stories here. You will know when to applaud.

                 

  • Complete 180

    Mental toughness and perseverance take physical form in Breanna Beddes. Formerly entrenched in an addiction to alcohol, Breanna never lost sight of her goal: to be the first person in her family to graduate high school. Living on her own since 17 and holding down a full-time job, Breanna shouldered the stress and responsibilities of adults twice her age. Still, her steely resolve and inner strength pushed her forward. A heartbeat away from being a dropout, this humble and hardworking young woman now has her sights set on college—and beyond.

    The turning point

    For Breanna, the first two years of high school year were a flurry of parties and drinking with older friends. Truancy was becoming a problem, and the former middle school honor student soon found herself in jeopardy of dropping out. Breanna said. Her “ah-ha” moment came after she got called to the principal’s office after a weeklong bender. “I was in a scary place. I didn’t care about anything and felt nothing. That moment embarrassed me enough to wake up.” Realizing she was putting her future in serious jeopardy, Breanna made the choice to abstain from alcohol.

    Alliance of self

    Revamping her life meant changing friends, routines, even living arrangements. In addition to being a full-time student, Breanna works 30 to 35 hours a week, splits rent with a roommate, pays bills, cooks her own meals and recently purchased a new truck. “I completely depend on myself, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

    Persistent pupil

    To make up credit and time she’d lost her freshman and sophomore year, Breanna attended summer school and later entered West High’s Grad Point program, which meant extending her school day and taking extra classes. “I always knew Breanna was bright and capable,” said Kim Petersen, Breanna’s guidance counselor. “But there was something about her…something intangible that made me know she’d succeed.” Breanna credits Ms. Petersen with nudging her in the right direction and thanks her for taking a vested interest in her success. Ms. Petersen says the credit should rest squarely on Breanna’s shoulders because “her results were in actions, my motivation was only words.”

    Walking the walk

    Breanna was able to support and motivate one of her younger siblings to hit the books and get serious about school. “When my younger brother was in middle school, he asked me ‘How did you do it?’” she said. “He later told me that if I wouldn’t have shown him, he never would have made it.” Breanna also participates as a student mentor in West High’s Academic Success program, designed for at-risk kids who find themselves in bad situations. “I show them that if they’re struggling or feeling like they can’t make it, things can get better. They have the power inside.”

    Cap and gown

    “My end goal has always been to graduate,” Breanna said, “but I don’t feel like it’s something I should be praised for. It’s a test you need to complete, and I did it.” Just days away from graduation, Breanna is not only passing her classes, but she’s getting A’s and B’s. Ms. Petersen said that she is every bit as proud of Breanna as she is of her valedictorians. “In fact, I can truly say that in my seven years of doing this job, there are few students who have impressed me more. Now I have to say goodbye to her, and that will be hard.”

  • One of the gang

    With her megawatt smile and sweet, effervescent personality, it’s hard to imagine Briana Price as anything but a bubbly 18-year-old who’s about to graduate. But Brianna’s story could easily have gone a very different, dark direction. “As a freshman, I wanted to fit in so bad,” Briana said. “I started hanging out with kids who were drinking and taking drugs. They told me that to fit in their group I had to, too.”

    Dark descent

    Briana quickly spiraled down into a world filled with alcohol and marijuana. Her grades plummeted. “I didn’t care about school, I just wanted to party,” she said. By the end of her sophomore year, Briana was more than a year behind in credits, and her ability to was graduate almost unrecoverable.

    The music in her

    Before high school, Briana had been a strong student. She is also an immensely talented musician. “My grandparents got me started taking piano lessons at age 8,” she said. “I also play the violin and guitar, take voice lessons and compose my own music.”

    About face

    Briana’s love of music led to a desire to become a music educator, but that dream was rapidly disappearing. The reality of her situation became clear at the end of her sophomore year. “I had basically blown off two years of high school and was really far behind,” she said. Briana recalls the day she made a 180-degree turnaround. “I was going to the fair with my friend, and we stopped by a party beforehand. Then it just hit me: I said ‘I can’t do this anymore,’ and I told my friend, ‘it’s either me or alcohol.’”

    Pressure point

    Briana says most parents would be shocked at how easy it is to get drugs and alcohol in high school. “One phone call,” she said. “The kids all know who to go to.” And, she noted that peer pressure is as strong as it ever has been. “They say, ‘hey – we’re good people, join us,’ but they’re really not.”

    School support

    With the help of her orchestra teacher, Mr. Gilstrap, Briana entered the Options program at the Career Center. She also stopped partying and hanging around with kids who did. “I didn’t worry about losing friends. I figured if they really were my friends, they would help me.” Most of the old party group no longer speaks to Briana. “It makes me sad, but the old me is gone. That’s not who I am anymore.”

    On to her dream

    Sober for more than a year, Briana is still working to repair the trust that was broken with her mother and family. “It’s better, but I really hurt my mom. We still have a ways to go,” she said. And she had to work very hard to make up one and a half years of schoolwork in a single semester. But with graduation just a couple of weeks away, Briana is now joyfully focused on her future. “When I picked my cap and gown, my mom and I just cried,” she said.

  • Life in a war zone

    Daniel Nyiang was born in the village of Wau in Sudan. At the time, the country was in a prolonged civil war, and Daniel’s parents worried for the safety of their five sons. “Young boys were frequently kidnapped and trained to be children soldiers,” Daniel said. When he was 7 years old, Daniel’s family fled to Cairo, Egypt, to live with distant relatives. One year later they emigrated to the U.S.

    Far from home

    The Nyiang family settled in Spokane, Wash. where Daniel and his brothers started learning to speak, read and write English. “I speak four languages: Arabic, Dinka, Swahili and English,” Daniel said. “English is by far the most difficult to learn.”

    Finding roots

    When Daniel was a sophomore in high school, he followed his older brother to Laurel, Mont., so that the older sibling could help tutor Daniel in English. Shortly afterward, his brother decided to return to Spokane; Daniel opted to stay. By then, Daniel was enrolled in Laurel High School and playing on the basketball team. “I loved playing basketball. My coach, Pat Hansen, offered to let me stay with his family. I was really close friends with Seth Kraft, and eventually I moved in with the Kraft family,” said Daniel.

    Bounty from the earth

    Lori and Brad Kraft, along with their kids Seth and Anna, introduced Daniel to life on a farm. Eager to learn Daniel found himself enjoying the routine. “I learned to irrigate, set water, and how to show pigs at the fair,” he said. One of the pigs Daniel sold at MontanaFair was purchased by a person who donated the pig back to Daniel to breed. “I ended up raising 11 piglets!” he laughed.

    Higher ground

    Dealing with adversity is something Daniel knows all too well. “Egyptians are very disrespectful of people with darker skin. When we lived there we went to private school and we had to dress a certain way. The kids did not like us at all. We would get spat on; that’s just how it was,” Daniel recalls. That resilience would prove important when Daniel tore his ACL playing basketball and needed to sit out a season to heal. And it was invaluable the following year when he tore his other ACL requiring a second surgery.

    Eye on the prize

    For Daniel, the immersion into American culture was also a lesson in the differences between how young people are raised. “I like America, but sometimes I see kids who are spoiled. My parents taught us to learn self-discipline and to do things on our own. Those lessons help you grow as a person,” he said.

    Removing a barrier

    Because of the complexity of the English language, Daniel struggled in the classroom. One of the teachers took note and took Daniel under her wing. “Miss Smith teaches English as a Second Language. She came to me and said, ‘Daniel, let’s set a goal and get you caught up on your credits and grades.’” Smith worked with Daniel daily, explaining, drilling and testing until Daniel could write and speak correctly. “Miss Smith is the reason I’m here, ready to graduate,” he said.

    An appreciative soul

    “I am so thankful for what everybody has done for me – the Thompsons, the Hansens and the Krafts plus all my teachers,” Daniel said. “What people have done is really, really big – I don’t know how to thank them, but I hope someday I can.”

    Future focused

    After graduation, Daniel hopes to study business in college, starting at a two-year school so he can play basketball and then transferring to a four-year institution. “One day when I am older I would like to live in Sudan part of the time and in the U.S. part of the time,” he said. “But I will always come back to Laurel – this town has done so much for me.”

  • Survivor

    “She’s one who never should have made it. But she did.” That’s what legal guardian, Misty Dawley, said of Jadessa Maisel, who will graduate from Billings Senior High this spring. But it has been a long, thorny road.

    Destructive childhood

    Fragmented home hardly defines Jadessa’s upbringing. “My entire life my parents were violent alcoholics,” Jadessa matter-of-factly said. She attended seven schools, including two in Great Falls. She bounced from mother to relative to step-dad. In her tweens, she left the house during parental rages; her mother reported her as a runaway. In later years Jadessa would couch-surf, sleeping at friends’ houses, even without their parents knowing.

    Drifting

    “I never had a chance to make friends, to bond, when I was younger,” she said of growing up in with no roots. “By middle school, I was pretty reclusive and was part of the deviant crowd—they were more accepting of someone who was into self-harm.”

    Her norm

    Drugs, alcohol, depression, parental abandonment, self-cutting—she experienced each, first-hand, by her junior year. When she was 16, Jadessa overdosed on prescription pills as a means to escape her painful existence. She could have easily turned into a statistic, very easily could have fallen into the dark hole of society that has no bottom.

    From the edge

    Yet it was, ironically, the suicidal death of her step-sister that pulled Jadessa from that indefinite void. “When she realized that what happened to her sister could have happened to her—she was almost there herself—that was a huge reality check,” noted Jadessa’s counselor, Pam Johnson.

    “Everything was going to shit—that’s when it happened,” Jadessa recalled of her wake-up call. “I knew her my whole life, and I should have been able to help her—my sister never got the chance I did.”

    Motivation

    When she hit bottom and reached out, help was there. A key element, according to Jadessa, was choosing to severe herself from her mother; she gained guidance in several mentors, including her new guardians, Misty and Floyd Dawley. “There are times when Jadessa would be at the school at 7 a.m. She knew this was a safe place,” Johnson said of the help available at Senior High and via Tumbleweed. “She is such a resilient young woman and when she walks across that stage to receive her diploma, it will mean so much.”

    “I told myself that I was going to prove everyone wrong,” Jadessa said. “I don’t want to play the blame game. You have to want something and not take the easy way out.”

    Forged by fortitude

    Through all of her challenges, Jadessa maintained her grades, including honors math, and her position in the school orchestra. She plans to attend Montana State University Billings to study psychology with goals of becoming a college professor in that discipline. “It’s a perfect for her,” noted Johnson. “This is a young lady who has bounced around, on her own, with no family support (until recently) and pulled it together. She got herself here, and she’s looking at the next step. It doesn’t stop here.”

  • Above and beyond

    He has the makings of the All-American Teen. Joe Zimmer is three-sport, outstanding athlete. His photo is often on the front page of The Billings Gazette’s sports section. He maintains a high GPA, including honors classes. Many would love to dislike him—he makes it all look so easy. For the average Joe, that would be enough. But that’s not Joe Zimmer.

    The little guys

    It is the things he does both in and out of the arena that differentiates Joe. He notices when a fellow player seems down and verbally picks him up, singling him out for encouragement. He’s the first guy at practice, pumping up the others. He goes out of his way to make everyone, not just his teammates, feel equally valued. All that, while quietly focusing on his own goals, his own self-improvement.

    Living example

    “Joe is simply an exceptional human being,” shared Senior High Principal Dennis Holmes. “He goes out of his way to accept, encourage and motivate everyone.” Holmes shares this example: Matt Hanes is Senior’s football team manager—an often thankless job. But every day, Joe makes a point of greeting Matt and thanking him for bringing water, for doing tasks that are often taken for granted, for being part of the team. “That’s just the way Joe is—plain and simple,” said Holmes.

    High achiever

    Hard work and dedication, the mantra of athletes everywhere, is not lost on Zimmer. “Sports create character and hold you accountable,” Joe says, “It teaches you what it means to be part of something that is bigger than yourself.” He wanted to be like the Torii Hunter, former outfielder for the Minnesota Twins. Yet, he says, “I’m not the most physically gifted kid out there; I’ve had to work to make myself a better athlete.”

    More than a W

    “When people look at your team, they look at win and loss stats. But you can win by getting the most out of everything you do,” he says. “Sports have taught me to remember both the fun and the big mistakes, but I also remember when I took a risk and the good that resulted.”

    Pursuing excellence

    Head Senior football coach, Chris Murdoch credits Joe’s intensity for his outstanding performances in the classroom and on the field. “He’s so dang competitive,” said Murdoch. “There are not many who want to be excellent, they would rather sit back and just be average, but Joe pursues excellence.” Murdoch calls Joe a natural encourager, a servant and strong believer in the power of ‘extra.’ “I get real intense,” Joe said. “Others see my passion, and I hope that encourages them. Part of the downfall of our society is that people are satisfied with what is and don’t go beyond that.”

    Leaving a mark

    After graduation Joe will attend Whitman College and play his favorite sport, baseball while he decides on a final educational direction. Regardless where he goes, Joe is the type of person who believes in, and lives, the positive life for both himself and for others. “People have told me that I’m a leader, and I like that I can influence others,” said Joe. “To not help, to be alone, is an empty life.”

  • Early obstacles

    On a family trip to Great Falls, 8-year-old Katie Bumgarner suddenly began to experience dizziness, extreme thirst and frequent bathroom breaks. Doctors soon diagnosed Katie with diabetes, informing her that she would require the use of an insulin pump for the rest of her life. “I remember hearing the news and feeling terrified,” she said. This wouldn’t be the last time Katie would hear bad news from her doctor.

    Exit, stage left

    When Katie was a junior in high school, she fell ill to a mysterious illness. Her stomach began to bloat, she felt constantly nauseous, dizzy and exhausted. Completing a full school day soon became impossible, and Katie had to drop to half days. In the midst of this, Katie was starring in the school musical and had no understudy. “I was so weak, so tired, but wasn’t about to let my friends down,” Katie said. “I still remember going on stage to do my parts then collapsing at the side of the stage into my mom’s arms. My mom literally held me up in between acts and nudged me back on stage when it was time to go back on.”

    Searching for answers

    Unsure about what was causing her illness, Katie saw a handful of specialists and was X-rayed, scoped and scanned for clues. Finally, a gastroenterologist diagnosed Katie with Eosoinophilic Esophagitis, a parasite that was basically causing the white blood cells in Katie’s throat to attack everything she tried to eat—denying her proper nutrition. A naturopathic doctor also discovered Katie was lactose intolerant and had Celiac disease. “In total, I take seven different pills three times a day in addition to drops and vitamins,” she said.

    A quick study

    Despite missing a significant portion of her junior and senior year due to illness, Katie’s grades remained exemplary. “Katie is a fighter,” said Skyview principal Deb Black. “Despite a number of medical issues, she works hard to be the best student, actress and musician she can be.”

    A mother’s love

    Katie credits her parents and especially, her mom, for her strength and fortitude. “My mom is my role model,” Katie said. “She’s been through extensive surgeries, has chronic back pain, works full-time as a teacher and never complains. She’s brought me more hope and strength than she’ll ever know.”

    Mighty mindset

    Katie continues to manage her diabetes and other ongoing health issues, but said that setting small goals has allowed her to forge ahead. “There are days I wake up and don’t want to get out of bed, but then I tell myself ‘just make it through your first class.’ After I tackle that, I tell myself ‘just make it to noon.’ I do that for myself, one class at a time, one day at a time.”

    Encore! Encore!

    Katie’s future plans include attending the University of Montana-Western in Dillon this fall to study music and theater. “I love to sing. My heart is in music, and their small campus and block scheduling fits my needs,” Katie said. Inspiring others who might be experiencing their own health difficulties is Katie’s ultimate goal. “The key is finding joy and hope in the things you can do, and do them well.”

  • Full of promise

    By all appearances, Libby Harris has the world by the tail. Beautiful, with a dazzling smile and a confident manner, the petite young woman speaks excitedly about her plans to attend St. Thomas University in the fall. “My brother attends St. Olaf in Northfield, Minn., which isn’t too far away,” she said. Libby and her brother share a special bond. “Our parents divorced when we were young, and we grew very close through that experience.”

    Scholar and athlete

    An excellent student, Libby’s parents also required their children take part in other school activities. “I tried a lot of different things. In the fifth grade I started playing soccer and just loved the sport,” Libby said. In her freshman year, Libby expanded her scholastic experience by participating in speech and debate. “I discovered that policy debate was one of my favorite things,” she said.

    Life throws a curve ball

    As a youngster, Libby was diagnosed with scoliosis, a condition which causes the spine to curve. In 2012, she experienced a significant growth spurt over a period of just two months which exacerbated the condition. “I could literally see the curve in my spine,” she said. “It was crooked and painful; I felt so self-conscious.”

    Grim news

    With her back worsening, Libby was forced to give up soccer. X-rays showed that the curve was too severe to be helped by a brace, but it hadn’t reached 45-degrees (which would have made Libby a candidate for surgery). Several months later, Libby visited a specialist in St. Louis. “By then my back had gotten even worse. The doctors recommended surgery,” Libby said. But surgery would come at a high price. “I was warned that it would be a very painful recovery, and I would have to give up all physical activities for at least a year,” she said. “And… I would shrink in height … a lot.”

    Grit and determination

    In October of her junior year, Libby underwent a seven-hour operation during which surgeons attached titanium rods along both sides of her spine, attempting to straighten it as much as possible. A 4.0 student, the procedure kept her out of school for four full weeks. “I was taking a very heavy course load, including AP biology and Spanish III. Between heavy pain medication and lost time, it was really hard to catch up and maintain my grades,” she recalled.

    Supportive community

    While she was in St. Louis and after her return to Billings, Libby felt incredibly supported by her friends and the teachers at Central High. “Maya Arce, one of my best friends, organized a bunch of people to write letters to me in St. Louis,” she said. “That helped me realize just how many caring people I have in my life.”

    Wisdom earned

    Three months after her surgery, Libby and her policy debate partner won the state competition. “It was such a great moment,” she said. She also caught up on all of her missed schoolwork and will graduate with a 3.96 GPA. “I grew from this experience,” she said. “When I was struggling with my self-confidence, I looked to surgery to fix the problem. What I learned was not to let a physical challenge or anything else take away from my self-worth.”

  • Roots and wings

    Strength, infinite patience and wisdom manifest themselves in 18-year-old Reed Tomochichi Lone Fight, who struggled during his youth to ward of bullies and drug users on the Fort Washakie Indian Reservation in Wyoming. “The reservation was a crazy, chaotic place,” Reed said. “Drug and alcohol use were rampant, some kids would even smoke meth in the bathroom at school, and others would huff on the bus on the way to school. Some days you’d have to defend yourself just to not end up in the hospital. It was not a glamorous place.”

    Family bond

    Reed was fortunate in that his family—strong and supportive—was always there to offer an ear or shoulder to lean on. “My parents and grandparents emphasized the importance of an education and gave me the tools to be a leader,” he said. “Too often people forget that to lead, you also need to listen.”

    Culture clash

    Reed soon distinguished himself as one of the brightest students in his class on the reservation, but then his family pulled up stakes and moved to Bozeman his freshman year. With few cultural outreach programs available and a sizable curriculum disparity, Reed saw his grades sinking—quickly. “I went from being the top male student at Fort Washakie to seriously struggling with my classes. No one, but my family, was there to help me.”

    Rise above

    With a transcript filled with failing and below-average grades, it would have been easy for Reed to fold when his family moved to Billings during his junior year. Instead, the resilient teen dug in. With the help of supportive teachers and staff at West High, Reed excelled academically and has even earned nine credits of college courses. “Giving up was never an option—my parents and siblings made sure of that.”

    Change-maker

    Flourishing at West High, Reed spearheaded a school-sponsored Native American group, a concept that didn’t find any traction in Bozeman. He also serves on a statewide student advisory board, selected by State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Denise Juneau. The group focuses on solutions to lower student dropout rates. “I’m involved in activities that feed my mind and my soul.”

    Steadfast and spirited

    “Reed has the ability not only to overcome life’s challenges, but to turn them into learning experiences,” said Reed’s high school guidance counselor, Lori Townsend. “He makes the most of his opportunities and is continually looking for ways to improve himself as he prepares for the future.” This attitude fuels Reed’s outlook on life—to search your heart for what you want, surround yourself with positive support and never give up.

    Paying it forward

    A career in guidance counseling with an emphasis on psychology is on Reed’s radar. He will attend the University of Montana in the fall and is eager to use his enthusiasm and skills to help others. “After all I’ve been through, I want to give back and help people on the reservation,” Reed said. “I want to be that person who makes a difference.”

  • Enthusiasm incarnate

    When Ryder Gerberding walks into the room, you know it. A lanky young man with tousled blond hair and riveting blue eyes, he is energy and enthusiasm incarnate. In conversation you quickly learn that Ryder is one of the most positive individuals you will ever meet. The fact that he is missing part of one arm and hand almost goes unnoticed – almost.

    Under his own steam

    “I was born missing part of one arm,” Ryder shared. “My mom felt it was somehow her fault. It was very difficult for my dad, too.” When Ryder started crawling, his mom took him to the Shriner’s hospital where he was fitted with a prosthetic. “I would tear the thing off, toss it away and start crawling again as if saying, ‘I don’t need that.’ My mom said that was the moment she saw the light and knew I was going to be OK,” he said.

    A mother’s love

    Ryder’s parents divorced when he was very young. His father moved to Wyoming, and Ryder stayed in Laurel with his mom and four siblings. “My mom has been the most inspirational, motivational person. She always told me ‘you can do it – nothing can get in your way,” he said.

    Hard knocks

    “Middle school was the roughest time for me. Some of the bullies called me names like ‘chicken wing’ and worse,” said Ryder. The youngster steeled himself. “I told myself I can’t let them get to me, or mean people will beat me down the rest of my life. So I brushed it off and showed them that their taunts couldn’t do anything to me. Eventually they quit.”

    Game on

    In second grade Ryder started playing basketball. “Basketball was my true love. It gave me the ability to show everyone what I’m really made of,” he said. Because other players naturally had more versatility, Ryder worked harder, put in more hours to earn respect on the court. In the ninth grade Ryder transferred to Billings Central Catholic High School. “I felt I had a better shot at playing basketball at Central, and maybe a better social and academic experience,” Ryder said.

    Wing men

    “I didn’t know anyone at Central, and for the first two weeks I felt like an outsider,” said Ryder. Four other freshman took note of the new student, and then they took action. “Ben Bruner, James Morgan, Alex Fitzgerald and Niko Cordero took me under their wing. We’ve been best friends ever since,” he added.

    Life through the viewfinder

    “I definitely want to study film,” Ryder said, noting that he wrote and produced his first film this year for one of his classes. “The film is about a struggling male who comes from an unsteady household and attempts to find his true inner self,” he said. “Actually, a lot of the story line reflects me in my childhood.”

    Game plan

    Though Ryder is committed to going to college to pursue a degree in film, he is equally committed to financial security. “After graduation, I plan to move to Wyoming to work in the oil fields,” Ryder said. “It will give me a chance to avoid having huge student loan debt, and also reconnect with my dad. I think it’s the responsible thing to do.”

  • Moving target

    Since 8th grade, Tesha Williams has attended four different schools. “I’ve had my share of obstacles,” noted the 18-year-old. “I moved a lot and lost credit.” Although she was raised mainly in Arizona, her mother re-located to Montana when Tesha was in middle school. “The reservations in Arizona are very different than the ones in Montana,” she noted.

    Falling down

    The transition was plagued with difficulties. During her sophomore year in Lodge Grass, Tesha’s mother, who had fallen into a drug addiction, was sentenced to prison. Tesha found herself alone and pregnant. “I tried to make things work with his dad,” said Tesha of her son’s father. “He was abusive; I put up with it for about a year, but I lost all love and respect for him. I had to leave.”

    Student + 1

    High school is fraught with obstacles for every student—classes, peers, extracurricular activities, jobs. But for a 15-year-old with a “little person” in tow, they can seem beyond scalable. Tesha attended Senior High and couch-surfed. “I lived off of friends; I felt like we had no place to go. But I had to do something for myself, for us.” Tesha found a landing spot, and the support she and son Armando needed, first with the YWCA’s Gateway House and then at Young Families Early Head Start in Billings. With guidance, she became more independent.

    On her own

    The teachers and staff at Senior High, Young Families counselors, her “house mother” at Harmony House, her extended family—they all influenced Tesha’s choices. “They believe in me here at Senior,” Tesha said. “I emancipated myself. It was hard to leave his dad, but it allowed me to be recognized as an adult, to be financially independent, to make my own decisions.”

    Mentors and motivators

    Tesha cites many women as mentors, starting with her mother, who has turned her own life around. She’s also credits teachers, counselors and her recruiter. “When I enlisted in the Army, I gained a whole new family. If I needed a ride to school, my teacher, Mrs. McCarthy would help me. Ms. Tesh, another teacher, took me out to dinner to celebrate when I returned to school.” The positives started stacking up and became contagious.

    Graduation matters

    “I have a lot of friends who have dropped out of school, mostly because they were pregnant,” Tesha noted of her quest to graduate. “Anyone can get a GED, but you have to earn your diploma. When my son gets older I want to show him my Senior High diploma. I want to be a person that my son can be proud to call Mom.”

    Stay the course

    After graduation, Tesha will move back to Arizona and continue with the National Guard, completing her basic training. Once she and Armando are settled, she plans to continue her education. “I feel like God’s blessed me with tragedies and good things. I’ve had so many things try to knock me down, and I’m still here. I’m still going to graduate.”

  • Out of the darkness

    On April 17, 2010, Tyler Starkweather, a high school freshman, attempted suicide. Shouldering the stress, name calling and bullying for being openly gay in high school became too much. “The bullying really began in the 5th grade when I realized I was gay and started hearing derogatory terms and insults flying around during everyday conversations. People would say words like ‘fag’ and ‘that’s gay’ like it was nothing.”

    Small minds

    While attending a nearby rural high school, Tyler was repeatedly told things like “you’re going to hell” and would get shouldered in the hallway. “I just wanted to feel normal and be accepted, but that wasn’t happening,” Tyler said. With just six weeks before the end of his freshman year, Tyler’s parents pulled him out of school and transferred him to Skyview High School.

    Into the light

    “My sophomore year was a bit hazy,” Tyler said. “I was still depressed and had a relapse with cutting. But the guidance counselor brought my parents in to formulate a recovery plan, and it probably saved my life.”

    Change-maker

    By the end of Tyler’s sophomore year, he had overcome his battle with depression and began focusing his energies on causes near and dear to his heart. He started the Gay-Straight Alliance at Skyview, which promotes tolerance, is actively involved in TAG, a teen advisory group at Billings Public Library and is a member of CAP, Exxon Mobil’s community advisory board in Billings. Tyler is also an advocate for the Out of the Darkness Walk, which raises awareness for suicide prevention.

    A shining example

    “We are so fortunate to have had Tyler attend Skyview,” said principal Deb Black. “He has found his niche here and has shown us how to be more accepting and open to others.”

    Sage advice

    To other youngsters dealing with difficulty fitting in because of their sexual orientation or those battling depression, Tyler offers these words of wisdom: “Talk to someone—online, on the phone, a friend, a counselor—just make sure it’s someone you trust. When you get older, you’ll realize that you’re not stuck in a small classroom with a bully who calls you names just because you are different.”

    Political passion

    In the fall, Tyler plans to attend college at the University of Baltimore and study political science. “I’ve always wanted to work for the UN, and the University of Baltimore is close to Washington D.C.,” he said. Tyler wants to affect real change in the world and aspires to be “the first publically gay Republican politician.”

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