Some students excel at athletics, others at art and music. Many focus on their grades in hopes to later go on to a good college, join the military or get a job to provide for their families.
But some students have harrowed pasts infused with abuse, death, life-changing accidents, substance abuse, anger and depression. Yet, they still wake up, wear a smile, go to school, interact with their peers and get good grades even while they face obstacles that would cripple many adults emotionally.
On Friday the Exchange Club of Rome honored six such students at the Accepting the Challenge of Excellence Award ceremony during the club’s weekly noon meeting at The Palladium.
The A.C.E. Award recognizes a local high school senior that has made a dramatic change in their attitude and performance during their high school years. These changes have enabled the student to overcome adversities and prepare for graduation.
Students who competed were nominated by their high school administrators based on their achievements at home, school, and their involvement in the community.
Yakelin Alvarado of Armuchee High School, Benjamin Masters of Coosa High School, Lacie Rogers of Model High School, Thomas Osborne of Pepperell High School, Ashley Jones of Rome High School and Shannon McKenna of Unity Christian School competed for the award before Thomas was named the A.C.E. winner.
Each of the students had their own, unique and inspiring story to tell and it’s safe to say that by the end of the program, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.
For Thomas, the A.C.E. winner, he grew up in a world of drug use. After his birth parents gave him to his grandparents two days after he was born, he lived a happy life. But after financial troubles drove his grandparents to sell their prescription medicine for money to live, Thomas and his grandfather were robbed at gunpoint by a group of men who bought medication from his family.
His grandmother’s being killed in a car crash and his grandfather’s getting very sick led Thomas to lose his innocence, he said. He chose to move to Rome from Franklin County so he could live with his aunt, go to school and excel, and now he will attend Jacksonville State University.
“While I have had hard times, I know that everyone has a story to tell,” he told his audience. “That is why I keep my story secret from most people. I do not want to be treated any differently than the next kid.”
His said his life’s struggles motivated him to keep going and conquer his future. To the other participants in the competition, Thomas said, “No matter who you are, where you’re from, what has ever happened to you… everything happens for a reason.”
Yakelin’s family came to the U.S. from Mexico when she was only 7 months old. Though her family struggled financially to make ends meet, Yakelin recalled a happy childhood with her parents. Her world changed forever when her beloved father died from a work-related accident. It took time for her to get over the blow.
Yakelin said she plans to graduate and go on to become a nurse or cosmetologist. Most of all, she treasures her mother for continuing to do everything in her power so Yakelin can accomplish her dreams.
“It’s now been seven years since we buried my father in Mexico,” she said. “My mother has continued to work hard to provide a life that she and my father dreamed of me having.”
Benjamin, who is known throughout the Floyd County area as a source of inspiration, spoke of the car wreck that changed his life. Now wheelchair bound, he went through many surgeries and also therapy before he was able to get back to his education.
Lacie said she was raised by her grandparents because her mother and father were addicted to drugs and alcohol and couldn’t care for her. After her mother died of cancer, Lacie’s anger at the world spiraled out of control and she went through an intense period of self-loathing. But it was her decision to join the United States Marines that helped her turn her life around.
“I became a more respectful and kind person and I now have plans for the future,” she said.
Shannon’s family was impoverished and kept getting evicted in her younger life. She told the crowd of how she made a decision to leave her biological family and enter into foster care so she could have a future her family couldn’t give her under their circumstances.
Ashley, who had a beautiful daughter as a teenager, attended classes at the Phoenix Performance Learning Center so she could still graduate and make a better life for her child.
“I overcame statistics and I became stronger for myself and more so for my daughter, Anna Marie,” she said, adding that though she felt she made poor decisions, she wouldn’t change them for anything.
“I have no regrets because the outcome of those decisions is priceless,” she said. “I can’t say I am proud of my past, but I can say I’m proud of the person my past has made me become.”