Growing up is seldom easy, but for a few Lake Highlands students it has been especially tough. Violence, poverty, terminally sick siblings or a parent dead from alcoholism — these things we wish on no one, but they are all elements of the stories that make these high school seniors’ successes so remarkable. As the saying goes, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” Meet the fighters.

Yordi Calix

One of Yordi Calix’s pieces hangs in the Young Masters exhibit at the Dallas Museum of Art. It is a Día de los Muertos-esque drawing, sans the color. A torso in a T-shirt and zipper jacket under a cross choker necklace gives way to a skinless head with exposed muscle and skull. Feathers, like those in a traditional Indian headdress, jut from a space that should house the brain. The work, titled “Absence of Flesh,” reflects a family consumed by alcoholism, Yordi says, but the necklace represents hope.

“It’s never too late,” he says.

Many of Yordi’s family members have suffered from alcoholism, he says, but the most tragic case, at least through the eyes of the high school senior, is that of his father.

“My dad always loved me and tried to show it. He tried to help me, but he was sick.”

Yordi was born here, but his father, a Honduran, recently was deported.

“When he left, he seemed ill. You could see yellow in his eyes, which I am pretty sure is related to liver damage. Part of me hoped he would stop drinking and start a new life there.”

But things didn’t turn out as Yordi hoped. His father’s health deteriorated, and in Honduras he did not receive the medical care he might have received in the States. At the beginning of Yordi’s senior year, his father died.

Feeling mostly angry, Yordi threw himself into athletics — wrestling and weight lifting — and also into art and academics.

He emerged from his grief with a fierce resolve to take a decidedly different path than his father and other relatives.

“Not only my dad, but some of my uncles and the older generation of my family have [succumbed to alcohol], but my cousins and I have decided that the younger generation will not go down that road and instead will make smart decisions.”

To that end, Yordi plans to study biology and become a doctor.

“I am fascinated by how the body works, and I want to help people,” he says.

He wants to medically and financially help people in struggling countries such as Honduras, where he lived from age 2 to 5.

Today the teenager — olive-skinned and muscular with deep-set eyes and a white smile — has a profound stillness about him. It is not pain or sadness, as one might expect in such circumstances, but rather an intense concentration on finding his place in life. His strong character shined during this past wrestling season, says John York, a Young Life leader who is married to Lake Highlands teacher Beverly York. York, a self-described “wrestling fanatic,” says Yordi was among the best and was bound for district and state competitions.

“Here’s what happened that made me an even bigger Yordi fan: He became injured and couldn’t compete anymore. Rather than feeling sorry for himself and walking away, he took the next kid in line under his wing and worked with him night and day to help him compete more aggressively,” York says. “To me, that showed a tremendous amount of character.”

Yordi doesn’t talk much about his current home life, but says he doesn’t live with his mom. He is staying with a relative through the school year, and he works part time to support himself.

York says few people know about Yordi’s struggles because he never complains.

“He is a gentleman and a super kid. Something has gotten to him at a deep level. He has so many licks against him, but he stays steady and has so much potential,” York says. “I don’t know if he’s exactly what you’d call a Renaissance Man, but he is close.”

 

Sarah Dossou

Sarah Dossou’s homeland, Togo, Africa, made headlines this year when it was designated the “least happy nation in the world” in a comprehensive United Nations survey on national mood.

Despite the fact that Sarah moved to Dallas from the depressed, poverty stricken and politically chaotic sub-Saharan African country just a few years ago, she is arguably the most cheerful person on the Lake Highlands High School campus, speaking rapidly in a variety of languages, and with a perpetual smile on her youthful heart-shaped face.

Sarah’s father shielded his family from the emerging violence in Togo and looked for ways to relocate to a better place. The same day Sarah graduated from her African junior high school, her father learned that he had won U.S. residency through a program he had entered called the Diversity Visa Lottery.

“It was the best night ever. I passed the test to graduate from junior high, my brother passed the test to graduate his elementary school, and we learned we were moving to America,” Sarah says.

The news was good, but the road would be difficult.

“The process was slow and complicated, and everyone was stressed because you only get a certain frame of time before the visa expires.”

The sheer act of traveling to the United States posed great challenges for the then 13-year-old Sarah, who had never traveled. Her father and older sister had already arrived in the states, and they warned her that there would be obstacles and she would need to be strong.

For example, “In Libya, they tried to stop me, take my passport. They questioned me,” Sarah says. On the earlier advice of her older sister, she stood her ground, defended herself and was eventually allowed to go on.

In all, she took four planes from Togo to Dallas, and when she got lost at the London airport, she could find no one who spoke her language, French, and nearly missed her connection. She says that, once settled on the plane, the passenger beside her actually spoke French (much to her shock and elation, for she likes to chat).

By Christmas 2007, the family was reunited here in Lake Highlands. The following semester, Sarah started school. When it hit her that she would need to learn a new language, she panicked. She desperately wanted to excel in school. Her father’s determination to provide educational and career opportunities to Sarah and her siblings had fueled the family’s daring move, and she would not let him down.

“I said to myself, ‘OK, Sarah, if you want good grades here, you have to learn the language.’ ”

She worked hard, watched TV with closed captions to learn pronunciation and spent untold hours in the library with books and dictionaries.

In the ensuing months, Sarah not only picked up English but she also learned Spanish.

“In the ESL (English as a second language) classes, I made a lot of friends, and most of them spoke Spanish. I really wanted to learn.”

As a senior preparing for graduation, Sarah places in the top 30 students academically with a 97.55 GPA. She works part time braiding hair at Georgia’s salon on Forest and Audelia, is president of the French club, a peer mediator, and a tutor and mentor to elementary students. Recently she won the Character Counts award from the Exchange Club of Lake Highlands, which recognizes strong student contributors to the community.

“My family came to see me receive the award. They were so proud. It was so great.”

In the fall, Sarah will attend Texas Women’s University and study physical therapy.

“It’s a miracle to help someone get back from injury,” she says. “When I help people, I feel my own strength.”

Her parents have both gone into similar fields since moving here — dad Kuassi, trained as an electrical engineer in Africa, went to school and became a nurse at C.C. Young near White Rock Lake. Mom Marie Claude is on staff at Walnut Place, an assisted living facility in Lake Highlands.

Those who know Sarah say her gentle nature belies her unrelenting spirit.

“Sarah exudes peace, but underneath that quiet exterior is a very determined young lady. She is focused on her goals and is intrinsically motivated to learn and grow,” LHHS teacher Beverly York says. “Sarah does not limit herself to seeking her own success,” York adds and mentions Sarah’s work as a tutor and peer mediator. “She takes a genuine interest in the needs of others and is always willing to sacrifice her time to help her friends.”

 

Stephanie Eyocko

Stephanie Eyocko is cheerful and self-assured, confident that she’ll someday hold a political office — after she finishes law school, that is. The high school senior, 17, says she may not have a political voice now, but she wants to improve education policies and work for the advancement of African Americans, starting with this community.

“I will come back here and run for District 107,” she says. (That’s the Texas House district that includes Lake Highlands.) Though she says this through a sparkling smile, she’s completely serious.

Such ambitions would be admirable in any teenager, but as each detail of Stephanie’s life story unfolds, her accomplishments and goals seem more impressive.

When she was 7, her family moved to Lake Highlands from Marseille, France. She didn’t know a word of English, and unlike the other kids in English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, she didn’t know Spanish either.

“I had a lot of friends back home, but here, there was not anyone I could talk to. Everyone looked at me weird and I just didn’t at all know what to do.”

The second-grader begged her mother to send her to a “French school,” arguing that she couldn’t “miraculously” learn a new language. Once she got past what she describes as a now-laughable idea of attending French school in Dallas, she got to work and learned English rather quickly. In third-grade, the Stults Elementary staff was so impressed with her progress they named her Student of the Year.

But life had more challenges in store: When Stephanie was about 9, her mother, Sabine, gave birth to premature twins, Bradley and Tony. Tony had life-saving surgery the first week of his life; Bradley developed cerebral palsy within the first year.

“I was used to being the baby, having my mom’s attention, and then everything changed,” Stephanie recalls. “For years, my mom spent much of her time at the hospital, and everything in our lives began revolving around Bradley — from special strollers and car seats to needing everything around him to be sterile all the time …”

She says her mother put on a brave face, but Stephanie knew, even at her young age, it was time to grow up and help out.

Now in her last year of high school, Stephanie has adjusted to a grueling schedule that includes honors classes, 20-hour work weeks at In-N-Out Burger, and rising before dawn daily to help bathe and feed Bradley, now 8. He “eats” via a gastronomical tube and takes eight medicines. After feeding Bradley, she wakes Tony and helps him get dressed and on the school bus. Because Sabine works a night shift, Stephanie has taken on many early-morning mothering duties.

When does she sleep?

“Usually from 1 or 2 a.m. until 5:15 or 5:30. I don’t need much sleep, and I have learned to love coffee,” Stephanie says. “I’m sure one day, the bags will show up under my eyes.”

Her sense of humor and optimism are impenetrable. She doesn’t simply endure taking care of her brothers. In fact, she cherishes the close bond they share.

“Bradley and I, we both love country music,” she says. “I love the Zac Brown Band. He’s more Kenny [Chesney]. He can’t speak well, but he knows who I am. They say he can’t see, but I am pretty sure he can see.”

Referring to her brothers, mother and herself, Stephanie says, “Us four are tight.”

Through it all, she excels academically and looks forward to studying political science and Mandarin Chinese (because of the strong Chinese financial market, she says) at Oklahoma University in the fall. Teachers rave about her “tenacity and perseverance” .

“I admire her courage to not only finish what she begins, but to finish well and complete each task, whether big or small, with excellence,” says past LHHS teacher Molly Gittemeier. “Stephanie’s goals, talents, and noble character combine to make a young woman brimming with potential. I can’t wait to see where she ends up.”

Perhaps foreshadowing her future in politics, Stephanie is already a good public speaker. She recently delivered an “amazing” lecture to a group of parents about becoming involved with the school, principal Peggy Dillon says.

“She is incredible. This was a high school student speaking to this room full of adults,” Dillon says. “She just inspires you.”

Stephanie also works as a peer helper and mediator at LHHS, which entails helping fellow students and mentoring a youngster from Lake Highlands Elementary. She says her relatively rough road has made her a more compassionate person.

“I wouldn’t at all be as good of a mentor had I not been through all the things I’ve been through,” she says.

“People helped me get to where I am today. I want to do that for someone else.”

 

Yoel Zehale

Though he was just 5 when it happened, high school senior Yoel Zehale vividly remembers the day he woke up in the ambulance.

“I was watching TV at home, and I just blacked out,” he says. “Next thing I knew, I was riding in an ambulance, and my parents were hovering over me, looking very scared.”

At the hospital, doctors diagnosed Yoel with epilepsy. That seizure, the summer before Yoel was to begin kindergarten, would be the first of hundreds. Over the next several years, Yoel and his parents, Abeba and Zehaie Tewolde, lived knowing that a seizure could strike at any moment.

“I would have them multiple times a week and sometimes three or four times in a day,” Yoel says.

His mother was so worried that she volunteered at his elementary school for years, just so she could be near her son.

Yoel recalls the torment of not being allowed to play like the other kids.

“I loved sports and just running and having a good time. You see your friends playing, and you just want to join. My sisters went on vacations, and I had to stay home … I felt sometimes like I was being robbed of my childhood.”

Then, when Yoel was in third grade, the seizures ceased, at least for a while.

In fifth grade, after he had settled into a relatively normal existence, strange things began happening again.

“We were taking a test, and I just turned it in unfinished. I got a zero and I didn’t know what had happened.”

This occurred a few times. Teachers, Yoel’s parents and Yoel himself were confused.

“I got in trouble. Even I didn’t know how to explain it. Finally a teacher recognized that I was having seizures.”

This time the epilepsy didn’t manifest itself in episodes of falling and shaking, as it had before, but in a subtler, more internal attack.

Initially, it was devastating for Yoel and his family to admit that the problem had resurfaced, but soon they learned to deal with it.

Medication didn’t work as well for Yoel as it does for some epileptic patients, so he had to learn what triggered the attacks and try to control them.

“Lack of sleep and stress are two of the main triggers. I can anticipate them coming on now, and usually I can stop them from escalating by going back to bed and resting for a while. If I don’t, they can escalate into a full-blown grand mal seizure.”

In addition to monitoring daily habits, Yoel has changed his attitude. Instead of feeling self-pity, as he had as a small child, he has learned to be upbeat. “Not just as it pertains to my condition,” he says, “but I can use it in life overall.”

“As I matured, I learned I can only control what I can control, and I can’t be concerned about what I can’t control. That attitude has helped me in my health, academics and in general.”

Once he started high school, Yoel had great hopes for the future. He wanted to enroll in Advanced Placement classes, but he was a little worried about how the schedule and extra work (more stress and less sleep) might affect his health. Sophomore year he tried taking one. That worked out, so the following year he registered for all AP classes. “Overambitious, maybe,” he says. “But I did it.”

Yoel, who never was able to travel as a kid, last summer participated in the Texas Leadership Forum in Washington, D.C., for qualified high school students, and he plans to study political science then law.

He wants to attend Baylor, he says, but plans to start next semester at University of Texas at Arlington because of a free-tuition program offered at the school.

Yoel’s charasmatic personality and diligence do not go unnoticed, teacher Beverly York says. “He accepts all types of people as friends and shows genuine concern for others. He is well-liked by students and teachers. In the classroom, he works diligently and instigates lively discussions. His gregarious personality brightens everyone’s day.