COVER STORY: Beyond Their Years

When they walk across the stage this month, our neighborhood’s graduates will give us plenty to be proud of. They will have marked life’s first monumental milestone, and many will do so with a trail of honors and accolades.

Beneath the ornamental cords and scarves, what we won’t see are the trials they endured to get where they are. It’s true that high school is one of the most emotional, difficult times of life, but a few of these seniors have had to overcome much more than just hormones and the painful process of maturation.

Here are the stories of three Lake Highlands seniors who not only beat the odds, but managed to flourish in the face of them.

It’s not enough for Helen Eshete to simply be an honors student.

Between the hours she spends at her part-time waitressing job, Eshete chairs the service committee of the Girls Service League, coordinating projects with groups like Habitat for Humanity and the Scottish Rite Hospital. She also makes time to regularly volunteer at local hospitals.

It’s a juggling act, but Eshete handles it with maturity and a unique perspective. When she feels like giving up, Eshete simply remembers her motivation — her mother.

Eshete was born in , and a couple of years later, her mother immigrated to , temporarily leaving Eshete and one of her older brothers behind. Her mother came to this country for the sake of her children’s education, and for her own education. But because she had to work to support her family, she never was able to finish high school. Eshete was five when she and her brother moved to Dallas, and the sacrifice her mother made to get them here is ingrained in her mind.

“She didn’t complete her school because of us,” Eshete says. “My mom says, ‘You’re my seed that I planted, and I want my flower to grow.’ The reason we came here was to get an education and to live a better life — the American life.”

At first, her new life frustrated her. Eshete has always been a social butterfly, and because she spoke only the Ethiopian language Amharic, “nobody understood what I was talking about,” she says. She eventually got the hang of it, and became just as chatty in her second tongue, but she continued to speak Amharic.

“My family speaks it at home, and I try to speak it as much as possible because I don’t want to forget my native language,” she says.

Family is import to Eshete, and not just her immediate family. Her aunts, cousins and grandmother all live within a five-mile radius, and everyone leans on each other for support, she says. That helped when lightning struck Eshete’s apartment complex last fall, destroying her family’s living and dining room and forcing them to temporarily move in with extended family members.

Eshete moved in with her grandmother, whom she regularly cares for by picking up groceries and driving her to medical appointments. But the separation from her parents required Eshete to not only take care of her grandmother but herself, as well.

“Because of my schedule and my mother’s schedule, we didn’t see each other that much,” she says. “No one was on me saying, ‘Helen, are you doing your homework? Where are you going?’ I had a lot of freedom, but it was my choice to prioritize and to do the things I wanted to do.”

One of her priorities was working with medical professionals and visiting with patients at local hospitals. For the last four summers, Eshete has spent quite a bit of her vacation time with cancer patients at Baylor University Medical Center. When one of the patients, who had become a friend, succumbed to the disease, Eshete struggled with the loss. But it hasn’t deterred her from wanting to pursue a career as a pediatric surgical oncologist. She plans to major in biology and chemistry and minor in psychology, which she says will help her “look at the whole person.”

“Cancer is also sort of [about] a mental cure, the spiritual desire to survive. That affects your physical state as well,” Eshete says.

As an 18-year-old, she already has figured this out. And there’s no doubt Eshete will follow through with her plans, both because that’s the kind of person she is, and because she’s determined not to disappoint the people who paved her way.

“You’re not just affecting yourself; you’re affecting your whole family,” Eshete says. “If we don’t succeed, all of my mother’s goals and all of her sacrifices weren’t really worth it.”

 

 

It’s not just his standing as a first-string football player that makes John Elmore stand out. Or that he also runs track, a sport in which he has earned district titles annually since his freshman year and will be a contender at the state level this year. Or even that he regularly trades in his track uniform for black tie attire to play second chair violin in the orchestra. And all this while maintaining an above-average GPA.

Impressive, yes. And even more impressive when you consider that Elmore manages to juggle everything despite the setbacks of attention deficit disorder, an affliction he now tackles without the help of the medication Ridalin.

The disorder began affecting Elmore as a young child, but it wasn’t the only challenge he faced. From the time he began speaking until he was in sixth grade, Elmore was in and out of sessions with a speech pathologist. Elmore’s older brother, Ben, had delayed speech because of initial hearing loss, and had invented his own language as a result. He taught Elmore how to talk, says the boys’ mother, Ruth Ann, so both of them spent the first two-thirds of their lives in speech therapy.

“For a while there, I thought their speech pathologist was going to have to go college with them,” recalls Ruth Ann Elmore, explaining that the brothers couldn’t pronounce soft letters, like “r.” “Their goal was to say their name. It sounded like ‘Elmo.’”

Her son remembers being occasionally embarrassed when he couldn’t pronounce words correctly, but says he never felt ashamed.

“I was confident in myself as a person,” Elmore recalls.

That confidence gave him the ability to eventually talk himself out of speech therapy, and as a sophomore in high school, it also gave him the gumption to wean himself off the medication on which he had come to rely to squelch his ADD.

“I knew I couldn’t always depend on it, and I knew I needed to develop my own thing and be my own person,” Elmore says. “Once you get into college, you’re not going to have mom there to make sure you do your homework.”

He began disciplining himself to eliminate distractions at school and at home for the sake of his grades — sitting in the front of the classroom and away from people when he needed to pay attention to teachers, and isolating himself from his mobile phone, the television and the computer when he needed to study. Even as the pressures on Elmore increased, his need for Ridalin decreased as he followed his system and stayed focused.

Now he’s able to continue practicing and playing the instrument that wowed him in fourth grade — “the reason I chose the violin over maybe a more manly instrument, like the bass, was because I had to walk home and carry it,” Elmore says — plus be recruited by the United States Air Force Academy for his stellar record as a track sprinter. Keeping up with everything can be stressful, Elmore says, but he doesn’t know any other way.

“I do all this stuff because I love it,” he says. “I wouldn’t practice 15 hours a week for football or 20 hours a week for track if I didn’t love Friday nights or Saturday afternoons.”

 

 

Winnie Widjaja was an eighth-grader when her family moved from the small island of Singapore to Dallas, and she vividly recalls the shock when taking her first steps onto American soil.

“It was in December, so it was really cold, and when I stepped off the airplane, I asked my mom, ‘Why did they put an air-conditioner outside?’” Widjaja laughs. “I didn’t know about winter.”

It wasn’t the first time her family had moved to a different country. When Widjaja was 9, they moved to Singapore from her native country of Indonesia, partly for a better education system and partly to flee from the riots breaking out at that time, she says.

“I just remember that suddenly my dad said to us, ‘You’re going to Singapore next week,’ so I left all my friends,’” Widjaja says. “In Singapore, they speak English and Chinese, and they didn’t speak Indonesian, so I had a really hard time then.”

As a second-grader, she began learning both English and Mandarin, the former coming in handy a few years later when her family moved to America. Here, Widjaja’s biggest challenge was not language barriers but culture shock.

“It was a total strange place to me. Everything was different,” she says. “In Singapore, we had to wear uniforms and stayed in the same classroom the whole day and teachers came to our classes. I had to ask some of [the students], ‘How do we change places? Where do we go?’”

Luckily, her new Lake Highlands classmates were helpful, and Widjaja says she made friends easily. Four years later, she’s an honors student who describes herself as “not really smart, but hard-working.”

And the number of clubs in which Widjaja participates is astounding — so many that she has a hard time remembering all of them at once. But she says she never forgets a meeting and tries to attend each one faithfully.

“Sometimes I have four or five meetings the same day, so I have to go back and forth around the school. This year has been a busy year for me, but I love it. I love volunteering,” she says, sporting her For the Love of the Lake T-shirt.

That’s the nonprofit to which Widjaja donates her time as part of Interact club. She’s also the president of the Asian Pride club, the vice president of the Archaeology club, the secretary of the Japanese club, and belongs to eight others, making her extra-curricular total a whopping 12.

Even more impressive considering that she didn’t belong to a single club until her senior year. Until recently, her family had only two cars, one for her father and one for her older sister, so Widjaja’s schedule was restricted to the time between the moment the school bus dropped her off and to the moment it picked her up. But her brother, who is also a Lake Highlands senior, received his driver’s license last year and now totes Widjaja to and from her meetings.

She has been accepted at the University of Texas-Dallas and plans to study business, but this citizen of the world’s ultimate dream is to travel the globe.


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