PH513_animated-coverThroughout May, commencement speakers everywhere beseech young graduates to embrace opportunity as they step into a bright future. Each graduate has a story about his or her journey to this day. Some have traversed dark and challenging terrain …

For those, the light is especially brilliant.

Barring math tests and the occasional W.T. White High School football-team loss, nothing gets Cormac Currin down.

Cormac Currin Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Cormac Currin Photo by Danny Fulgencio

 

Holly Hope was worried that her son would struggle not only academically in high school, but also socially. Hope worried Currin’s Down syndrome would lead to ostracization.

Cormac Currin Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Cormac Currin Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Anyone who walks through the campus at W.T. White High School can see that isn’t the case. “He probably has 30 different handshakes with everybody. He seems perfectly at ease to me. He’s in a place where he has blossomed,” Hope says.

Currin has been a staple of the school’s cheerleading team for the past four years. When the Longhorns football team wins, he’s ecstatic, but when they lose, he covers his eyes and remarks that they are “party poopers.” Currin first found out about the cheer team at a annual “Meet W.T. White Night” he attended with his mom while he was in the eighth-grade. After the performance, instructor Hilary Rinella asked if anyone was interested in trying out. Currin stood up and frantically started waving his hands about. Now he helps with safety during the stunts, helps lift the girls and yells cheers out of a megaphone. He’s formed such a bond with the team that on his 18th birthday, all the cheerleaders went to Build-A-Bear and made him a monkey stuffed with a sound box of a personal cheer for him: “C.O.R.M.A.C. Cormac is the best!” The students also bought him presents and performed a cheer for him at the Friday-night game.

Currin’s positive attitude and quick wit have helped him form such camaraderie that the students also participate in the Down Syndrome Guild of Dallas’ Buddy Walk every year.

Though it hasn’t always been easy, Currin will graduate in May with good grades. “Testing is hard, math is hard and I don’t like homework,” he says. “It’s hard to get it all done, but I’ve had a good experience.” Hope says that she and her husband help him with his homework, and that he has a tough time keeping up with certain classes that aren’t always adapted to his needs and skills.

Currin really has flourished socially, though, his mom says. At school, he works in the nurse’s office — checking mail, making labels, filing and cleaning sick beds. He is a hall monitor, where he enjoys checking other students’ ID badges and telling them not to kiss in the hallways, his mom says. Outside of school he’s earned all his badges to become an Eagle Scout, the highest rank in Boy Scouts. He lights up when he talks about performing in W.T. White musicals and participating in a separate theater group for teenagers and adults with special needs. Currin says that when he graduates he wants to be a movie star — or an ice cream man.

“His main thing is, he likes to make people happy, and so he figures that’s the way to do it,” Hope says.

Currin’s parents applied to the Dallas ISD Transition Program. There he’ll be able to try out new skills, learn how to ride public transportation and find a career field that suits him. “We want him to be as independent as possible,” his mom says. “But there are a lot of young people with disabilities and not enough affordable housing that is convenient to safe public transportation. We’ve been through tough times with him, but now he’s easygoing, and we love having him here,” she says.

 

Rocio Valadez Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Rocio Valadez Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Her high school journey was filled with anxiety, but Rocio Valadez learned to lean on her Thomas Jefferson High School teachers and now is a role model for others.

It was spring 2009, and Valadez was excited about starting high school that fall. Everything changed when she learned that her father was diagnosed with large-intestinal cancer. During the ensuing year, Valadez felt frightened and overwhelmed by the idea of her dad’s illness, yet she kept everything to herself — until one day in band class. “I felt so anxious, and I felt the need to talk to someone, so I talked to Mr. Woody.” Band director Tom Woody referred her to Thomas Jefferson High School’s counselors for help.

There were a lot of things weighing on her — not only were her father’s cancer treatments rough, she says, but her older sister was using heroin. “I would have gone crazy if I didn’t talk,” she says.

Three days before Christmas in her junior year, Valadez learned her dad was cancer-free. It was a relief, but a short-lived one. In spring 2012, Valadez was rushed to the hospital with a ruptured appendix, a frightening experience. In the fall, she found a lump in her neck. Again, in her fear, she kept quiet. “I never spoke to anybody about it until later in November when it started to hurt,” she says. After some CT scans and sonograms, the doctor found two gumball-sized cysts in her neck. Valadez says she went into surgery to have them removed that December, but what was supposed to be a quick operation turned into a two-day hospital stay. “I cried for so many days,” she says. “I got a flashback of my dad when he was sick at first and didn’t think it was cancer.”

Valadez looked to family, friends and teachers for support. One day her history teacher shared a personal story — she, too, once had a lump in her neck, and if she could get through it, so could Valadez. “I stopped thinking about the negatives and focused on the positives,” she says. And it turns out it wasn’t cancer at all.

Now a senior, Valadez has some relief in her life: Her father is still healthy, her sister no longer uses drugs and Valadez is part of an anti-drug program at Thomas Jefferson, as well as TJ United, which aims to break up high school cliques. She also plays clarinet and bass clarinet, and will attend the University of Texas at Arlington in the fall to study psychology. She says it’s important for people to confide in others before it’s too late. “People always told me, ‘Why didn’t you do drugs?’ Well, that’s not reality. You just end up alone, and the drugs become your friend. I wanted to be a role model for my younger sister, and in the end I wanted to be a role model for my older sister, too,” she says.

 

Anthony Galo Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Anthony Galo Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Violence and financial insecurity threatened his success, but Anthony Galo, supported by the Hillcrest community, rose above his circumstances.

Though he was a young child at the time, Galo recalls vividly the fear he felt the first time he witnessed his father’s rage. Galo was at the dinner table with his parents when his father suddenly swept an arm across the table and sent all the plates smashing to the floor.

“I was 3 years old when that happened. My mom didn’t leave him until I was 6,” Galo says.

His father was in and out of jail, struggled with an alcohol and drug addiction, and in turn beat his mom, Galo says, but she didn’t leave until the beatings got worse. Galo and his older brother relocated from Long Beach, Calif., to what he calls a “rough” Dallas neighborhood to live with his aunt. Galo, now a senior at Hillcrest High School, says that for a moment he thought his life would be different after his mom met another man and they all moved in together. “We thought we were going to be a big, happy family,” he says.

Galo’s mom and the man had a daughter in 2003 and eventually married, but one day his mom caught her husband in the act of cheating, and everything took a turn for the worse. “That was probably the most painful thing for me — watching her so depressed,” Galo says.

Pressure weighed on young Galo. His brother had turned to drugs and constantly skipped school, and the family — who had financially relied on Galo’s former stepfather — became destitute. At 16, Galo got a job so he could take care of himself. His mother had fallen into such a deep depression that it was almost as if she forgot he was there, he says. “I realized at some point in my junior year that I wanted better for myself, and after I realized that, I started working hard,” Galo says.

He became president of Hillcrest’s Interact Club (Rotary International’s service club for youth) and is currently class president. He joined AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination), a college readiness system, and with the help of AVID teacher Spring Rayford, he started applying to colleges. He has already been accepted to Texas State, Stephen F. Austin and the University of Texas at San Antonio. “Now my mom and brother see I did something with my education, and they are getting back on their feet, too,” he says. After watching what his father, brother and mother went through, he decided to end the family cycle of drugs, violence and stagnation. Galo is proud of what he’s accomplished with the help of Rayford and other role models at Hillcrest. “We’ve all had family trouble, poverty, bad cycles — but the only thing that can pull you out of all that is an education,” he says. “You have to focus on yourself and not your family issues.”


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