Hard-earned diplomas for local high school grads

Eight share their stories of overcoming adversity, poor choices




It’s a simple walk across the stage. But rarely is the path to graduation a direct line.

Life tosses us curves, detours and, sometimes, seemingly insurmountable mountains to scale.

Many, if not most, successful students in the Class of 2011 overcame some serious challenges to obtain their high school diploma. They faced a moment of truth, a jolt of clarity. Perhaps it was one sudden shock, or maybe an impending crisis that stewed for years. They faced the consequences of poor choices, or passage into new understanding of how to successfully pursue a tangible goal.

Often there would follow tedious work, slow and steady improvement, unflagging support of family, friends or faculty members.

But having reached their first, really tough life goal, graduates also acquired new maturity and self-awareness. Most can recognize exactly when and where they made a life-changing switch.

Here are a few of the hundreds of deeply personal stories of persistence and payoff unfolding across Clark County this month.

Vinnie Mendez-Honesto, Union High School

Vinnie checked off dates on his calendar, just like an inmate might.

“I remember every day of it,” he says now, without malice.

He had landed at the quasi-military Washington Youth Academy, operated in Bremerton under the U.S. National Guard. He would endure a 20-week boot camp program designed to instill self-discipline, self-esteem, development of healthy lifestyle and outlook — and to reel in eight credits toward his diploma.

Vinnie, 18, needed all of that. Most of all, he needed a reversal of attitude. A Vancouver native, sharp but bored, he’d run with the wrong, violent crowd.

He would curse or fight anyone who crossed him, until one altercation at home crossed the line. Doors were broken, police called, a fourth-degree charge filed. His parents’ words stung: Get out of our house. You’re a disgrace; you’re a terrible example for your three younger brothers (and one sister).

As he wiped away tears in the holding cell, a revelation came: I’m not going anywhere.

“If I don’t graduate, my brothers aren’t going to graduate,” he says now. “This is dumb. This is not going to work, not going to get me where I want.”

His parents’ last rope was the academy, and he grabbed it. He earned straight A’s and returned with sustainable life skills. He co-founded a multicultural club at Union, helped stage a diversity assembly and, on Thursday, graduated. Next comes Clark College, and perhaps a look at the military. “I want to be an IT specialist. I love computers,” he says. He’s sure he’s fought his last pointless fight. “Now, I’m a leader and a partner.”

Ashlee Chiara, Union High School

Ashlee Chiara, 18, faced her moment of truth countless times, curled in bed or on the sofa.

Her body fought itself. Debilitating yet mysterious abdominal pains kept her home. She lost 10 pounds she didn’t need to, dropping her weight to 95 pounds.

Doctors were flummoxed, then finally found and removed a 15-centimeter cyst, and one of her ovaries with it. That was in her freshman year at Union. Tenth grade wasn’t much better: A boyfriend’s blow broke her jaw in two places. Once again, weeks of missed class piled up, then F’s and lost credits. So did malicious gossip.

“It was really hard, and overwhelming. For a while, I wanted to drop out and get my GED,” she says.

But Ashlee drew strength from her mother, brother and grandmother, who told her to keep fighting, “to finish and become better than them.” She plunged into Union’s credit-recovery academy and connected with teachers who believed in her. She stacked one eight-hour day after another, and began to rack up credits. A and B grades followed.

“I started getting closer to my teachers, and it made me feel like coming to school. I worked hard,” she says, singling out life skills teacher Gary Mills for his support. Her senior project looked at dropout prevention, and she earned year-end academic recognition.

This despite recurring pains this spring that gave Ashlee another June assignment: a procedure for further diagnosis.

“I’m able to show my teachers that I am smart, and I do my work,” she says, proud to prove doubters wrong. She’s headed for Clark College with hopes to become an ultrasound technician — to “be a better doctor” than those who initially treated her, she says.

Oscar Sanchez, Union High School

Oscar Sanchez, 18, knows well the perceptions saddled on Latinos. Yet he tumbled straight into the stereotype.

By his middle school years in Northeast Portland’s Parkrose district, the Los Angeles native found trouble. “I messed up a lot. Getting into fights, getting suspended. Stupid things,” he says. “It was so easy to not come to school.”

Life further unraveled when his folks split. He and his mother were evicted. Suddenly, he found himself living with an uncle in well-off, and white, east Vancouver, formally listed as “homeless.”

“People look at you different. Kids thought I was into drugs, thought I was a gang-banger,” he says. But adults at Union, and close friends, saw someone else. He found secretaries, counselors and teachers who steered him through credit recovery programs and, with a late sprint this year, to his diploma.

Work ethic wasn’t an issue. Oscar juggled several jobs to stay afloat, in restaurants, insurance and a large electronics store. Also an unrelenting force: His sister had graduated from Parkrose High, a first in the family, then earned a college degree in teaching.

“I was just told, ‘You have to graduate.’ It was expected. I expected it of myself,” he said.

He knuckled down on credits and classwork, and invested in himself. He helped shape a diversity club and events at Union, from casual movie nights to a schoolwide assembly.

He’d like to follow his sister and be a teacher who can share Latino history and mentor students like himself.

“I always tell people don’t be a number, unless you’re going to be a good number,” Oscar says.

“I’m going to be one of those Hispanics that graduates.”

Alicia Doble, Legacy High School

One year ago, the 19-year-old sobbed in the Mountain View High School auditorium, watching her Legacy High peers receive their hard-won diplomas.

The moment slammed her.

“I sat in the back, crying. I was so emotional. That was supposed to be my graduation time, walking across the stage. And it wasn’t,” Alicia Doble says. “It just clicked: I wanted this.”

The jolt transformed the self-described rude, arrogant slacker who never put effort beyond some serious partying. “Right then and there is when I decided to turn my life around and get serious about school. I knew I wouldn’t get anywhere without my high school diploma,” she said.

Family life has dished out pain and inspiration. Her father was jailed, then her mother died of a rare cancer when Alicia was 10. Still, her grandparents, aunts and her beloved Uncle R.C. never lost faith in her.

“My heart wasn’t in the right place. My priorities weren’t right,” she says. “I never really cared about anything.”

Starting the year with barely one-third of required graduation credits, she plowed through 10-hour days to catch up. She focused her senior project on similar, amazing recoveries. Driven by teachers and counselors, she became an exemplary role model.

Next stop is Hawaii, to live with a cousin and take online prerequisites for what she hopes is a nursing degree, perhaps phlebotomy work. “It’s what I’ve known I always wanted to do, take care of people,” she said.

She began by fixing herself. “It’s a bit surreal. It’s the biggest moment of my life,” she said.

Viridiana Manriquez, Hudson’s Bay High School

It wasn’t a book or pen that produced Viridiana “Vidi” Manriquez’s educational epiphany. It was the soap and cloth her mother, Angela, used to clean dishes inside a Chinese restaurant.

The elder woman’s inability to speak English made her the target of derision. Manriquez’s thick Spanish accent made her the target of similar teasing as a schoolgirl. Her doubts about school were erased in middle school, as she watched her mother come home every night from a job she did not enjoy.

Manriquez vowed she would achieve something greater. In essence, she would attain the life her parents sought when they left Mexico when she was 2 years old.

“I didn’t want to go through the same thing” as my mother, said Manriquez, 18. “I want (my parents) to be proud of me.”

She joined GEAR UP, a program designed to prepare students for college, and volunteered her time as an English tutor in Vancouver’s Spanish-speaking community.

Her mother’s sacrifice remains ever-present in her thoughts. And she vows to take lessons learned from her parents to Pullman this fall when she enrolls at Washington State University.

Jessica Harris, Hayes Freedom High School

Teen pregnancy is not normally part of the equation for high school success.

Then again, Jessica Harris, 20, is not the typical student.

She said her pregnancy at age 18 provided her the wake-up call necessary to graduate.

Her decisions were no longer about just her. They affected her son, Ayden.

Harris’ 180-degree turn is all the more remarkable when viewed through the prism of her experience.

She quit school in eighth grade. Then at 16, she had heart surgery. She returned for three months of school before missing more time due to a tonsillectomy.

Then, she got the news she was pregnant. Complicating matters, she was homeless and attending school.

Her contractions started early, at 30 weeks. Ayden was born in December 2009. She did not return to school until November 2010. By that time she had run out of excuses.

Ayden has since become a fixture at school with his mom. And tomorrow he will see her walk across the stage.

“To me it’s a new beginning,” said Harris, who plans to take construction classes at Clark College this fall.

Kurtis Moody, Hayes Freedom High School

To become his family’s first high school graduate, Kurtis Moody had to make a choice unpopular with them.

The 18-year-old moved in with his girlfriend’s parents in Camas, where he always had a warm meal, a bed and a stable address.

Moody had attended more than two dozen schools in Arizona, Oregon and Washington prior to landing at Hayes Freedom High in Camas. At many of those stops, he and his two siblings did not have a permanent address. He had dropped out of school prior to living with his girlfriend, Taylor Drinkwine, and her parents, Ray and Leah.

Moody’s tough choice paid dividends his junior year at Hayes Freedom. He earned a 3.9 GPA and missed only one day of class.

His hard-earned success hit home when he received his cap and gown. Seeing himself in the mirror with his graduation outfit on nearly caused him to cry, he recalled.

“I never thought me or someone from my background would graduate from high school,” Moody said.

Now, his sights are set on grander goals. He plans to attend Clark College in the fall and study business. He hopes to one day work in the restaurant industry.

Matt Johnson, King’s Way Christian

Class clown. Rude. Jerk. Social climber.

Matt Johnson, 18, does not mince words when describing his former self. He enjoyed having fun at others’ expense and did not care whom he hurt, be it students, teachers, or opponents on the basketball court.

But for Johnson, the “fun” ended with one sobering half-hour chat with his guidance counselor, Chris Conway, midway through his junior year. Conway’s words hit Johnson like a ton of bricks.

In particular, he started treating his fellow students better.

“It was really humbling,” he said. “As I look back on it now, I realized, ‘I’m turning into a bad kid here.’”

A more respectful Johnson has transformed into an A and B student in the classroom and earned the school’s MVP award in basketball. This fall, he will suit up for Multnomah University’s basketball team and study elementary education in the classroom.

All of which would not have been possible had it not been for Conway’s intervention.