2016 GRBS Perseverance Award Winners

The GRBS Perseverance Scholarship is designed to recognize students that have had to overcome significant personal challenges and or hardships. All applicants have authorized us to share their stories in hopes of providing inspiration to those who read them. Here are the amazing 2016 GRBS Perseverance Award Winners. If after reading these stories of perseverance you are moved to contribute to any of our recipient’s further education, please contact Heather East at GRBS (800-441-4463 or heast@grbsinc.com) who will share how you can help.

  • Our Co-Sponsor Hillyard Proudly Supports District Scholarship Winners In:

    Byron Center
    Reed City

  • Our Co-Sponsor Nichols Proudly Supports District Scholarship Winners In:


  • Our Co-Sponsor KSS Proudly Supports District Scholarship Winners In:

    Comstock Park

  • Our Co-Sponsor Spartan Proudly Supports District Scholarship Winners In:


  • Belding Area Schools: Austin Gay

    Our recipient lost a beloved grandfather in 2011. This started a journey of isolation when he pulled away from his family, falling into depression and acts of self harm. At this same time, their family had to move away from his home and go to a new school exacerbating his condition. Through the persistence of his parents, they were able to identify his sadness and access counseling to stop the self harm, but he turned to other forms of behavior and acting out. He then hurt his arm during wrestling requiring surgery for eight pins to be inserted, though pain will always be present and the shoulder will never completely heal. His father’s job would pull him away from the family for months at a time and resentment continued to build.
    But during his junior year in High School, he found an opportunity to turn back to something that had been a constant in his life, his faith. As he shares, “I lost sight of who I was, and I started searching for myself in all the wrong places. All of a sudden, the anger, self-loathing, bitterness and resentment that I had built up was becoming lessened. What I have dealt with may not seem like much, but what it has done has made me who I am today. I now truly believe that the struggles I have faced were for the best and that they will prove to be necessary for the path that lies ahead. God continually reveals himself to me through the daily struggles of life and it is because of my faith that I am able to overcome them.”

  • Birch Run Area Schools: Kaitlynn Pagel

    In her past, Kaitlynn persevered through many things. The main challenge she faced was her biological mother. When she was five, her mother left her family, leaving while Kaitlynn was at her first day of kindergarten. “I was heartbroken, and hurt, feeling as if it was my fault that she left”, reflects Kaitlynn. There was no contact for about four or five years, until Kaitlynn’s mother finally decided to come into her life again. She came for a weekend every month but meanwhile Kaitlynn struggled with anger towards her. Then her mother stopped coming every month, only visiting her once a year. However, rather than being overtaken by bitterness Kaitlynn writes, “I’m on the path to forgiving her. I can’t hold a grudge anymore.” Because of her mom’s distance towards her, Kaitlynn believes she has become a stronger person because of this hurt, and can say, “I am becoming a better person. I try harder to be a happier person, and to be the best person and friend I can be."

  • Byron Center Public Schools: Alexis Slagter

    At the age of only ten years old, our recipient was diagnosed with Leukemia. While news spread quickly, she found it was her immediate family who worked to keep the mood light with humor and a outlook positive. Together, her family ensured that the cancer did not strip away their identities.

    The battle lasted for three years, including life threatening incidents with pancreatitis and pneumonia. Through her journey, she credits her positive attitude for saving her life, because while she physically survived, she emotionally could have been destroyed. She knows her positive attitude also helped other patients around her stay motivated and keep battling their illnesses.

    She writes, “Due to almost losing my life, I realized I must live as fully as possible while I have the chance. I need to take advantage of every opportunity that comes within my grasp. Witnessing other patients, friends, dying from the same disease also pushes me to pursue my life fully. My compassion will also be a constant driving force in my actions. My battle was painful and difficult. However, I would not alter it, the chemo, the hair loss, the mental struggle. The lasting effects were worth the fight. I am unaware what path I would be heading down if not for cancer, but I happen to be delighted with the place I am heading now.”

  • Cedar Springs Public Schools: Amanda Forner

    We all take so many things for granted until it no longer exists. For our recipient, her family suffered financial loss resulting in losing their house. The strain caused difficulties in their family, but then her mother received a blood clot on the brain and suffers to this day. Instead of giving into defeat, our recipient was determined to increasing her grades, studying at the hospital by her mother’s bedside, and striving to apply and hopefully receive as many scholarships and grants as possible, knowing there is no money available for furthering her education. In fact, she credits the downturn in her life ten years ago as the beginning of her new life to become a well-rounded person and get the best out of life, now and always.

  • Cedar Springs Public Schools: Prussia Hawley

    This young lady has persevered through many hardships. She and her father struggled through significant health issues, financial issues and homelessness. Her essay tells us of time when they lived in a 5th wheel during summer months and a shed during the winter months. But through it all, her father kept her positive and always reminded her she could change her life. She stayed focused and motivated to give herself and her father a better life. She shares in her essay, “I have grown to be a strong, independent, loving and brave woman. Looking in the direction of the future, I will continue to grow with an optimistic look towards every situation I encounter. I know there is always a light at the end of the tunnel, and no matter what, I’ll keep going.”

  • Chippewa Hills Area Schools: Jenna Koepf (At Large Winner)

    Our recipient was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in her junior year. Due to her diagnosis, she thought she would no longer be able to participate in sports and the many other activities she was involved in. However, she was determined to not let MS define her. She has been able to maintain her position of first chair and section leader in band, her membership in national honor society, and her role as president of her youth group. She wrote in her essay, “These last two years have been the most challenging years of my life, but I’m glad they happened. Because of this challenge, I know how strong I am. I know that I have the ability to live a normal life.”

  • Comstock Public Schools: Katherine Leaders

    Our recipient shares a heartbreaking journey of a broken family and abuse, so much so that although she agreed to share her story, we want to respect the sensitivity of the horrific conditions in which she grew up. She was blessed to have grandparents who sought and were awarded guardianship allowing her the opportunity to thrive and graduate with all of you today. She was captain of the Varsity basketball and volleyball teams and involved in community volunteering at local events, and officiating youth basketball games. She shares that, “it was difficult to relate to my classmates’ complaints and views on life, I was known as being aggressive towards my classmates, and only a handful knew the reason why. My ways of coping went to straight sports. It was an outlet of anger and frustration, and to free my mind from memories. I look at the bad things that happened now as blessings, to push myself to set a better life. I believe that if bad things didn’t happen to people we wouldn’t know what the good is. I plan on achieving my goal of setting a better life by being the first collegiate student in my family, attending Kalamazoo Valley Community College and playing on the Lady Cougars basketball team where I received a walk on spot.”

  • Comstock Park Public Schools: Isaiah Oke

    Our recipient was born with a heart defect. He has had to endure five surgeries as well as a hearing impairment, but he never let that stop him from pursuing his education. In his senior year, he experienced a life threatening episode requiring him to be placed in a coma for nine days. If he hadn’t told anyone about his symptoms, he may not have been with us here today. Returning to school was a challenge, playing catch up and living in fear of a reoccurrence, and sure enough, he was hospitalized again for another two weeks putting him further behind. But because of his dedication and commitment to graduating on time, understanding better than most that you have to face the hand you are dealt, make goals and push through.

  • DeWitt Public Schools: Riley Figueroa

    Our recipient shared his journey where he felt lesser than his peers and because of it, he isolated himself from his friends and even activities he enjoyed. He shares, “Years of paranoia and constant stress lead to me experiencing depression and becoming even more withdrawn from the people I loved. I was moody and would often snap at my parents and treat them disrespectfully. I lost friends from my behaviors and my grades began to drop as well. I felt incredibly alone and had feelings that my life was worthless.” He finally sought help from his parents and received the support, respect and care he needed to slowly begin to repair his behavior. He reconnected with friends, earned two varsity letters in Cross Country and Swimming and became social and friendly again. He shares that, “I could easily spend the rest of my life complaining how hard high school was for me, but I would much rather spend my time encouraging other people to be themselves and to succeed despite fears of rejection or prejudice.”

  • East Detroit Public Schools: Nikeah Howard

    At the tender age of 8, our recipient woke up and was told to pack her few belongings. She was driven by her mother across town, and dropped with her grandmother and father. She would not see her mother again for at least five years. She felt abandoned, depressed, destroyed and even suicidal. She almost gave up on life. But with the support of her friends, her therapist, her family and especially her grandmother, she was able to graduate with her peers. She wanted to share this with all of you in her own words.
    “I am here to tell you that persevering through rough times is 100% worth it. If I had given up and ended my life at only 14 years old, I’d have missed out on the times that I have called ‘the best moments of my life.’ I’d have missed out on moments in history, I’d have missed out on everything. As I sit here typing this essay, tears are streaming down my face. Not in sadness, but in astonishment. I am truly astonished how I lived through it, when I thought my final days were upon me. I have accepted what happened. I forgave my mother. I have been able to educate my fellow classmates, friends and even strangers on how important it is to persevere with everything they do and everything they go through. It feels amazing knowing that I’ve helped others, and maybe even saved lives by doing so. I will NEVER give up, no matter how hard it may seem. NEVER.”

  • Freemont Public Schools: Beatriz Ochoa

    Our recipient grew up in a volatile household. After years of abuse too heartbreaking and sensitive to share with you today, she eventually withdrew, became depressed and attempted suicide. With the support of her brothers and sister, she gained the strength to get better. She hopes to be the first person in her family to attend college. During her senior year, she was a full time student with two jobs, but managed to keep up with schoolwork and earn A’s and B’s, getting only about 4-5 hours of sleep per night and going in early to receive help from a teacher. She says in her essay, “There are struggles and problems that come up, but there are always ways to work around them. My life has not been easy, but I like to think of the positives. Rather than thinking something as half empty, I like to see it as half full. My childhood will help me remember that I must keep pushing through if I want to achieve a better life for my family and me. I have endured a plethora of obstacles, discouragements and impossibilities, yet I continued steadfastly.”

  • Garden City Public Schools: Anthony Nitowski

    Battling depression for many years, our recipient found solace in playing the piano. As part of his focus on finding a positive outlet in his life, he began recording songs and ultimately, decided these would result in a fundraising CD entitled, “Reflections: Thoughtful piano music benefitting Alzheimer’s research.” So far, he has risen over $2000.00 as a way to honor his grandfather, currently battling Alzheimer’s disease. He states in his essay, “All my hardships have helped me so far in life and will help me for the rest of my life. I’ve made a transformation, a metamorphosis into an ambitious, well rounded happy young adult.”

  • Gaylord Public Schools: Joshua DeGraw

    Perseverance is defined as in the ability to do something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success. Joshua shared, “Money has always been a trouble for my family. I have been raised by my mother, due to my father and mother being divorced. My mother works 40 plus hours a week to make ends meet. We are constantly living paycheck to paycheck.” Education will always be there to achieve, but family sometimes passes on. This was yet another challenge Joshua had to face. On December 20, 2009 his brother passed away. From that point until the end of 7th grade, education was also a hurdle for Joshua. He found himself always placed in the special education group. He always struggled not being like the “other normal kids”. One day Joshua decided to take extra tests to transition out of his special education classes. Now he carries a 3.74 through high school. Joshua has participated in every honors class through high school. Joshua is also in National Honors Society for having good graded and giving back to the community. Through financial struggles, death, and education challenges Joshua has overcome these situations with a smile. As he looks back, Joshua can share “All my past challenges have motivated me to keep wanting more. I will keep achieving more to later become successful in whatever I do.”

  • Harrison Community Schools: Toni Fletcher

    Our winner is a dedicated athlete who injured herself during training. The injury was painful, but she persevered through her softball season hoping to fix the injury between seasons and not miss supporting her team. Unfortunately, the injury was more severe than originally diagnosed, and her surgery more extensive expanding her recovery time to over six months. Additionally she learned more surgery will be in her future requiring partial replacement. But that didn’t stop her from playing sports, and she continues to play through the pain. She has been on the Varsity Softball team all four years of her high school and plans to play in college as well. She says in her essay, the injury “has taught me how to just get through things because I know the reward is greater than just sitting out and watching everyone else succeed.”

  • Hartland Consolidated Schools: Samantha Scherba

    Our recipient shared her journey with her classmates this year in AP composition. None could have guessed the trauma she experienced as a Kindergartner, leading to years of suffering from PTSD, depression and the worst imaginable thoughts. But it was the day she shared her history with her friends that she credits as the day the weight of the world was lifted off her shoulders. With the support of her teachers, therapist and parents, she is graduating with over a 3.5 GPA and over 250 hours of community service. She says in her essay, “I realized that my recovery wasn’t just about me. It really affected everyone around me. A lot of my trials and tribulations were often suppressed, and I would not wish that kind of internal turmoil onto anyone. I hope to be “that one person” that finally cared and sat down to listen to what was on my heart, and loved me in my brokenness.”

  • Holland Public Schools: Alexis Ellis

    It all started when I was just fresh out of the womb, only 26 weeks. Alexis writes, “The doctors said I was likely not going to be able to see, walk, or talk. I would have problems learning and I would not be able to interact like others.” As Alexis became older her parents got divorced. That situation left Alexis feeling scared and confused. At times she even felt worthless. From that point on, Alexis practically started to raise her two younger sisters. But the challenges continued for her, her mom and sisters. By the time she hit her freshmen year they had gotten evicted. Due to the fact that Alexis was going through so much at home, it was really a struggle for her to focus on her schooling. She continued to miss school and take care of her two younger siblings. People that would hear about her situation would always comment, “She is not going to make it”. Alexis started not to care because she felt like others did not care either. It seemed like every adult around just really did not care. Her freshman year she basically failed every class. At the same time, she and her mom and sisters were living with an aunt. It was a tough position to be in due to the fact that Alexis’ mom was never really there to watch her or her sisters nor help contribute to expenses or foods. Some nights Alexis would skip eating dinner because she felt as if they were being a burden and eating all of my aunt’s food. At this time is when a different aunt offered for Alexis and her sisters to stay with her and her husband. Was she going to make it?
    Her first day of junior year was different. For the first time in a long time Alexis actually went to school on time and put in the effort to do the work that was given. Alexis also took zero hour classes to get caught up. And now Alexis states, “Here I am in my senior year. I have been taking four classes and working two jobs. I have been accepted to college. Something I never thought I would be capable of doing. I could not be more thankful for the people in life that have encouraged me, instead of the negative people telling me, ‘She is not going to make it’.”

  • Howell Public Schools: Aubrey Klein

    Our recipient lost both her father and her home in a terrible accident when she was in the 7th grade. Despite the terrible shock and loss, she immediately returned to her school and activities, which she credits as a way to help cope, and inspired her to make the most of the life she was given. Now, she and her mother have returned to the property, but her mother works three jobs to support them so her daughter can continue with school and the activities that continue to enrich her life during this young age. She hopes to maintain a life of perseverance but also, a life of understanding of others who go through trauma and loss, so they too can learn how to overcome great challenges in their lives.

  • Kalkaska Public Schools: Brianna Petty

    Our recipient has had to face unspeakable loss, violence and rejection during her young life. What could have defeated any child into believing they could even have a future became the incentive to ensure she was able to graduate with all of you today. She set out to prove 4 years ago that she could make something of herself despite the choices made by those who were supposed to love her and keep her safe.

  • Kent City Public Schools: Hannah Yates

    Our recipient struggled all of her life with dyslexia. One day, her father was able to connect a pattern for her to learn so she could find a way to learn how to write despite her disability. Reading too was a struggle, but because her sister would read to her every night, she learned to love books despite the fact that it was difficult and time consuming to finish each page. Through her family, she has found support and solutions enabling her to persevere through her dyslexia so she can continue her education at the secondary level.

  • Lakeview Schools: Camie Cooper

    Like so many students, our recipient has worked hard to achieve success while also supporting her family through illness and financial hardship. Yet she persevered not only academically but personally as well. She credits the Lakeview school system for being supportive to her as well as so many other students that face similar challenges. She credits these challenges as one of the reasons she is prepared for the future, and we agree.

  • Lincoln Consolidated Schools: Brittney Barros

    Our recipient agreed to share her story with all of you. It is an insightful and heartbreaking journey of being homeless. She had to live outside, in tents, in motels, in shelters, even a hospital, moving every one to three days. Every time they would find a place, they were kicked out, having to move on yet again. She was embarrassed and didn’t want other students to know. Finally, with great courage, she asked for help from her school counselors, and they delivered. She received transportation, food, money, clothes, a place to shower, blankets, care packages and most of all, hope for a future. But the State stepped in and separated her from her siblings, moving them into different foster care and group homes. There, she was bullied and her few possessions stolen from her.
    After two years in the system, her grandmother was able to secure guardianship with her little sister, although her brothers were moved out of state. She started to regain stability and hope. Where many of us would have been defeated and depressed, she was motivated to help others, and give back to the community that helped while her when she was down. She began working at the Ozone House, a homeless shelter and non-profit organization that helps endangered youth in Washtenaw County get off the streets. She continues to work there as a Peer Out Reach Worker, talking to hundreds of young people going through similar tragic journeys, and giving them hope.
    Please let us share her final paragraph of her essay. “Homelessness taught me to never take anything for granted. Every time I get in a hot shower, I thank God for giving it to me. At night, when I lay in bed, I think about the times I didn’t have one. As numerous community members helped save my life, it taught me our society is better than what we label it. Homelessness pushed me to better myself, and to further my education so I can help others, and never, ever have to go through it again.”
    We are honored to donate $1000 to the Ozone House of Washtenaw County in her name as well.

  • Mt Pleasant Public Schools: Rachel Machuta

    Our award winner starts her essay by saying, “There’s a difference between surviving a hardship and persevering through one. Everyone will face some sort of difficulty in their lives, but it’s not the size of the hardship that matters, it’s how you let it affect you.”
    She was diagnosed at age 13 with a genetic disease that causes tumors, cysts and cancers. Soon afterward, she had her first brain tumor, followed by surgery and a long recovery. A few years later, she was diagnosed with her second tumor. Yet she believes it was because of the tumors that she has grown to be strong and motivated. She pushed herself through headaches, doctors’ appointments, sick days and pain. She challenged herself to join as many clubs and to make as many friends as she could. And though her journey will be lifelong with this disease, she has learned at such a young age how to use her positive mind, strength and motivation to persevere.

  • Parchment Schools: Hailey Pritz

    Our recipient shares her story about abandonment, abuse, and financial hardship. Never knowing her mother, she was left in the care of those who sometimes didn’t have time for her or resented having to take care of her, and she was abused. She learned to stay positive from her grandfather, and she credits his example as setting the one she would give to her own little brother. Sadly, her grandfather passed away when she was 12 and just after, she was diagnosed with a learning disability. She couldn’t believe the challenges that kept coming her way. But she was determined to stay positive because her brother needed her to help keep him safe. She ensured her home environment was changed by standing up for herself and her brother, and she worked hard on all of her grades so she could better herself and the future. She shares in her essay, “I took time to feel bad about myself, but now I know I can always do something about it. I am worth it and I can do it. Sometimes, things go wrong in life and you can’t control when it does. But standing up for myself and taking control of my life was what I needed to do. I do think back to those times and it makes me sad, but it also gives me a reason to work harder. The financial hardship, the bullying and the abuse has only made me a stronger person.”

  • Plymouth Canton Community Schools, Canton High: Soundousse Zovani

    Our recipient shares a journey of having a dual identity of being a young Arab-American. While she appreciated her culture at home, but she wanted to fit in with the other children at school. She would speak English at school, at swim practice at grocery stores, but speak Arabic at home, the mosque or on Skype with her grandmother. She would opt for American entertainment instead of Arabic to be the same as everyone else. But she realized that being the same never felt so boring. Eventually, she felt there was a shift in her environment that encouraged the importance of being yourself in a diverse America, and saw the opportunity to revisit her culture and connect to what she had thought was embarrassing for a long time. Her essay of how she reconnects on so many levels is beautiful, and we encourage you to read it on our website after June 1 where it will be available in its full content, but we want to share this excerpt with you tonight.
    She writes, “My journey to reconnect with my culture has taught me not to hide my differences as if they are shameful or any less American. What connects each person in America today is not the English language, but rather a unity of tongues that represent all corners of the world. A trip to Algeria only confirmed this as I watched the beautiful sun blend into the depths of the Mediterranean Sea and I was surrounded by the chatter and laughter of my family. In that moment I whispered, ‘thank you God for creating me different from everyone else, because this is a moment no any ordinary person can own and enjoy.’ ”

  • Plymouth Canton Community Schools, Plymouth High: Jason Ren

    Our recipient experienced a surprising and serious medical emergency in the beginning of his junior year when his lung collapsed. Then it happened again, and then again for the third time. He was hospitalized for 25 days undergoing 2 surgeries inserting five chest tubes. This stopped him from playing soccer which included cancelling a trip to play in Costa Rica. Each time, he would have a journey back both academically from the time he missed and physically from what felt was like having a face plant in cement and dragging himself out of it. He also was afraid his scholarship to MIT for soccer was in jeopardy and lived with the constant dread that his life would change forever.
    And it did, but because of what he went through. He began to realize the world was not going to slow down or make exceptions for him, and that everyone has hardships. Brooding over the past was taking away from his future and things he had no control over. But he did have control on how to react and respond, so he changed his thinking and took control. He contacted his teachers and created ways to catch up. He set deadlines and timelines and disconnected with electronics so he could connect with education. It took four months, but he made a full physical recovery and brought his grades back up.
    The biggest challenge was learning mental toughness. He was able to persevere through a final try out with MIT, controlling the flow of the game and ensuring his place as a top recruit.
    He shares with us these words. “I will always be able to look back on this experience as a turning point in my life, not because it has drastically altered my life goals, but because it has augmented my confidence in myself to achieve them. Before my lung collapsed three times, I kind of coasted through life. While I am not happy about what happened, I am grateful for what it has taught me. Today, I constantly push myself to do better because I recognize where I was when I was not accomplishing much, and I never want to be there again.”

  • Plymouth Canton Community Schools, Salem High: Zach Gonyea

    Our recipient found out he had leukemia when he was 11 years old. He battled through various stages of chemotherapy for four years, and now, he is as he says in his essay, “back to normal, and hopefully it stays that way.” But what struck us most as we read through his essay was his truthful accounting of his journey, an excerpt we will share with you today. He writes, “I’m not going to lie, the way I got through the tough times sometimes was through just complaining about it as much as possible. It kind of made me feel better, but my parents got annoyed after a certain point. My family was a major factor because they distracted me from it and made things feel better than they were. The last thing that got me through it was seeing so many people who had it worse than me. I think this has strengthened me and made me more able to deal with hardships that come my way. I am more able to roll with the punches and deal with the situation I am put in. Not everything or nothing really, goes the way you plan.”

  • Plainwell Community Schools: Joseph Leone

    Two years ago, our recipient was alone in his garage, exercising in his weight room when he experienced a terrible headache. He knew something was wrong, and contacted his parents. His motor, speech and vision skills declined rapidly as they raced to the hospital. He was experiencing an aneurysm and stroke in his brain, and the left and right hemisphere were out of alignment and crushing each other. They took a gamble to transport him to a hospital where he could receive neuroglial surgery followed by a surgery three days later to have a portion of his skull removed and titanium straps put into place. He began to recover his motor skills and vision, but needed to cease almost all activities for about a year including driving or even using stairs. He shares this was when he needed to learn patience because he could not see well enough to read or watch movies, and instead spent time listening to music or playing the piano.
    He was told he would not be able to return to school that year, and not be able to graduate on time. But he had other plans in mind. He took advantage of the virtual schooling and took online summer school to catch up, enduring painful headaches and loss of vision while studying. He credits school counselors for helping him through, and he started his senior year on time, taking AP and honor classes and dual enrollment in college. He even took a part time job to save up for college. He shares in his essay, “This experience taught me there was a lot that I could accomplish when I worked hard towards it, but that there will be times when I’ll have no control over my life, and that’s when I’ll have to rely on others. The Neurosurgeons and doctors that beat the odds and saved me, friends and family that supported me through my recovery, and employers and counselors that helped me get back into life. Without all of them, there is no amount of work that I could have put in that would allowed me to survive, recover and get back on track. I suppose that’s what life is. Not something to be afraid of because it can be lost, but an opportunities because had things been different, it’s time we might not have gotten.”

  • Portage Public Schools, Community High: Makayla Smith

    Our recipient was young when her family began facing significant financial, physical and emotional hardships. But through it all, she could rely on her grandmother to take care of her until she passed away four years ago, followed by her Grandfather 2 months later. Trying to make a new start, her family decided to move to Michigan, but broken and unsure, she began using drugs and alcohol as a way to keep her feelings in check. She had to start helping run her household at the age of 14, but the stress and anger continued in her household. She began to steal and stopped going to school and allowing others to get the best of her physically and emotionally until eventually, she found herself on the streets at age 15. In her essay she writes, “I had nothing, I had nobody, I was nobody. Reliving these moments kills me, I was so hurt on the inside I did my best to hurt everybody around me as well.” But she came back and overcame her past, through self-motivation, and a fearless commitment to not giving up. She shares, “Most people leave when the going gets tough, but the people that stick around through it all, are the ones that care. It won’t rain forever, never give up.”

  • Portage Public Schools, Northern High: Jenna Ahmed

    Jenna was born to a Mexican American mother who all her life was a migrant farm worker. Jenna’s father is an Eastern Asian Indian born in Kenya. Jenna’s mother always taught her to keep my head up and learn the best that she can, but Jenna’s life descended when a major change occurred in her family. After the 9/11 attacks on our country, her father was detained and deported to Kenya. Jenna has been separated from my father for 11 years. It has been a life changing experience, but she has learned to live with what she has as a family. Since Jenna is the oldest, she realized she needed to assist at home. Jenna has made sure she and her sister complete their homework, cooking, cleaning the house, and being a good role model. Jenna has worked hard to succeed in school. Therefore; she has kept obtaining honors every year. Although Jenna has had a tough time, she has turned to volunteering at the local hospital. Along with volunteering Jenna has always looked forward to joining activities at school, such as participating for the last three years in the high school marching band color guard. In addition to volunteering and other duties she is engaged in, she also works part time. Jenna expresses great appreciation for the opportunity that her manager has given to her.
    It was never easy for Jenna’s mother to travel from state to state looking for work as a migrant farm worker. Jenna reflects “Knowing now that she brought up two children whom respect her heritage and knowledge she created, as her daughter, I am glad I was brought up this way.” Jenna plans to represent both her heritages well at Western Michigan University.

  • Reed City Area Schools: Andre Jones

    “My mother was a high school drop out because she got pregnant with my oldest brother and struggled to get back on her feet” says Andre. He will never forget the long nights of waiting to go to school in the morning because he knew he would have meals at school. He and his siblings often had to go over to friends’ houses to fill their empty stomachs. They moved from house to house or apartment to house. There were many days they lived without electricity. Andre’s dad was not even in the picture of his life. All Andre knew was that his father was in and out of prison.
    Still living house to house trying to make a living, Andre’s mother moved them to Reed City. Moving all over the place caused Andre to fall behind in school from missing so much time in the classroom. By the time Andre was in 6th grade, he was in trouble at school just about every day. But in 7th grade, things in his life started to change for the better.
    Andre thought it was a good idea to ask a friend’s family if he could move in with them until he graduated. They allowed Andre to start living with them. He never had to worry about not being able to eat, or not having a bed to sleep on, or clothes to wear. Since Andre moved, he has thrived in athletics. Sports became a huge escape for him. Andre is especially proud of how well his academics have improved. Last year, he took his ACT and received a 15. However, he was not content with this and worked hard to improve. Andre scored a 22 on his second ACT.
    Today, Andre’s goal is to be the first person his family to get college degree. He is extremely grateful to many people at Reed City who have truly helped him overcome obstacles in his life and more importantly, believed in him.

  • Sparta Area Schools: Ellie Shangle

    Our recipient came from a single parent home where her mother struggled to make ends meet. At a young age, she was diagnosed as dyslexic, and she credits the Sparta school system for giving her the academic support she needed to be here with all of you today. Then her mother was diagnosed with stage four lymphoma, but kept working while receiving treatment to take care of her daughters. Sadly, her mother lost her battle in 2012. Though she was taken in by a caring family, she misses her mother every day. She states in her essay, “I try my best every day to have a positive attitude. In my life, I hope to impact other people who have struggled with a loss of a family member. In the end, the trials that I have faced have not defeated me, but have given me the strength and faith to endure life and whatever life throws at me.”

  • Tri-County Area Schools: Hannah Drouin

    Many of us are challenged with allergies, but likely none have as great an impact as our recipient. She is allergic to dairy, wheat, beef, spices, shellfish, eggs, mold, pollen, trees, grass, dogs and the list goes on. The main symptom caused by her allergies is the swelling of her throat causing breathing difficulties, but she also found out she has Vocal Cord Dysfunction which only allows her to breathe in, causing her to lose her breath when doing physical activity. Eventually, the challenge of living with all of this brought her to a low point, and she credits her family on working with her to accept her conditions. They supported her and kept her positive in pursuing a life that will always include the need for will power. She writes in her essay, “Looking at me, most people wouldn’t see that I am in a constant state of pain or struggle, so I know that other people could be battling with their own struggles that others just can’t see. I know I need to be kind to everyone. My conditions and struggles have taught me that when we are struggling is when we need to persevere the most. If you can push through your hardest and darkest time, then you can reach the other side. It is our struggles and our burdens that make us strong.

  • Watervliet Schools: Shannon Hunt (At Large Winner)

    Our recipient was a victim at a young age of date rape. Afraid to tell anyone, she reached out in confidence only to have her situation shared with the wrong people. She was bullied and harassed. She then went to her parents and received the love and support she needed to move forward. She also found support from her cousin Julia who was her best friend, but sadly, after a brave 2 year battle with cancer, Julia passed away. But our winner credits her family and faith as being like the legs of a chair that support her when she is weak. She joined a group called H2O who meets weekly as support and help for teenage girls, to build up confidence and self-esteem to deal with problems. She says she wants to help other members know, “that if I can make it through what I did, that they can make it through the journeys they need to conquer.”

  • Wayland Union Schools: Hanna Moulenbelt

    Our recipient shares a heartbreaking journey through depression since the 7th grade. Because she agreed to share this with all of you, her own words best describe her situation. She writes, “The emotional and physical part of the mental illness takes a toll, for example, not wanting to get out of bed or go outside. There is the feeling of tiredness all day, all the time, no matter how much sleep the body takes. There is a feeling of unworthiness and the want to cry all the time. My depression got bad enough for my family to notice. I felt like I was suffocating. I felt that there was no way I could help myself.”
    Her family got her professional help, and by the time she enrolled in high school, she was back to feeling confident in herself, until she found she had to transfer to a new neighborhood and a new school. She sunk back into depression, this time furious and mournful. But she immersed herself in extracurricular activities and surrounded herself with many friends. She is proud to be a Varsity Soccer player and the first girl ever on the High School football team. She shares, “Depression is a mind over matter mindset. It is a soul sucking disease that can consume a human if they choose not to fight. It is a long process to find your way back. The secret is that there is no back. There is a vaguely familiar schedule, but you the person made up with morals, dreams and goals are different. The “different” is a magical thing, it proves that mental illness IS conquerable. I know I am a strong human being that is capable of anything I set my mind to. Life is about the journey. It will be a messy, beautifully painful journey. No matter what my dreams I strive for, my number one goal in life is to be happy.”