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The personal struggles of 18 students attending Ceres schools were both heart-breaking but their examples overcoming were heart-warming at the annual "Every Student Succeeding" awards banquet Friday.

Each year Ceres Unified School District officials selects one student from each school. Supt. Walt Hanline said that the award is always "about people who meet the challenges of life."

The breakfast setting included a motivational speech by Antonio Borba, a Portuguese immigrant who made his way from milking cows to a university professor. After becoming a teacher at Tuolumne Elementary School and becoming a principal and superintendent in Salida and Chatom districts, Borba went back to the University of the Pacific to earn his doctorate by age 53.

"Education is key," said Borba. "Education is critical. If it wasn't for education, I'd still be milking cows today, which is okay but I didn't like milking cows."

William Towner

Carroll Fowler School teacher Danielle Ellerd honored fifth-grader William Towner. William grew up in group or foster homes.

"He knows the importance of education," said Ellerd of Towner. "He comes to school every day with a smile on his face." She added how special it is to "see that bright light in his face every day."

Terry "T.J." Fleming

Lynnette Chirrick, principal of Adkison Elementary, chose fourth-grader Terry "T.J." Fleming for honors.

"Born at only 24 weeks and weighing only one pound, seven ounces, T.J. has continually impressed his teachers," said Chirrick, "first in the severely handicapped program and then in regular education. T.J. made quick academic, behavioral and emotional progress throughout his school career."

She added that her staff is proud of T.J. for "how well he compensates for being legally blind on his own." He is also inquisitive and a great attitude toward school. T.J. is now earning above average grades and test results how in proficient ranges in Language Arts and advanced in math.

Ashley Sanchez

Carol Lubinsky, principal of Caswell Elementary, honored sixth-grader Ashley Sanchez.

"Ashley has lived a life that would challenge even the strongest of children," said Lubinsky. "Her mother died while giving birth to Ashley and she lived with her father until he passed away four years ago."

She moved from Southern California to Ceres at that time to live with her grandparents, a difficult transition. While at Caswell she met up with teacher Ilaen Marron who helped her adjust to her new school.

"Ashley has truly blossomed," said Lubinksy. "She's not only a diligent student but she is a leader for all students at Caswell Elementary School."

"There's no doubt in anybody's mind that she will some day achieve her goal of becoming Dr. Ashley Sanchez."

Jessica Lopez

Don Pedro Elementary Principal Cheri Gibson honored Jessica Lopez, a fifth-grade teacher. Her special day class teacher Leslie Fiedler said Jessica has excelled in academics and is "especially a great writer."

"Jessica is always willing to take on new challenges," said Fiedler. "She is taking on the challenge of playing in our school band as a drummer. She also took it upon herself to run for Social Coordinator in this year's Student Council election. She is also taking on the challenge to be mainstreamed in a regular ed fifth grade room. Jessica has a huge heart; she is the first one to comfort someone if they are feeling down or having trouble. She will sit and read to other students or help them out in math."

Jessica also has a great sense of humor and often smiles, making others smile.

Brian Villa

Fifth-grader Brian Villa was selected for honors by Joel J. Hidahl Principal Vaughn Williams. His teacher, Monica Yuskaitis, said Brian has risen above many difficult circumstances "that not very many children have had to face." As a young boy he was involved in a car accident in which his mother was killed.

"It was such a tragic thing for Brian that he had a very difficult time coping," said Yuskaitis. She related that one staff member who knew Brian earlier in life said he would "curl up in a little ball and just cry and just had such a difficult time excelling at anything, in academics or socially and he had such emotional trauma that he had to overcome."

Thanks to his father and other family members and teachers, Brian has "blossomed like you have never seen," said Yuskaitis. At an academic awards ceremony held Thursday, Brian made the Principal's Honor Roll. In the Accelerated Reading program, Brian is the eighth highest reading student in the school.

"He is also a wonderful little soccer player and plays his little heart out."

Connor Smith

Virginia Parks fifth-grader Connor Smith was honored by Principal Jennifer Backman. Diagnosed as autistic at a very young age, was cited for overcoming many obstacles. Standing with him were his parents, Randy and Maggie Smith of Ceres, and teachers Kasey Knight and second-grade teacher Elaine Fetzer.

"Second grade was really his turn-around year and ... he has just overcome academically so many accomplishments," said Backman. "He has currently received Principal's Honor Roll this trimester and last trimester Honor Roll."

Angelina Burgara

Sinclear fifth-grader Angelina Burgara was singled out for honors by Principal Connie Stark. Teacher Eva Purkis stood behind Angelina as Stark explained how she overcame huge obstacles.

"When she came to Sinclear in fourth grade, her home and family situation was in transition. Her emotions and social behavior was in upheaval. Her academics were very low. She didn't function very well in fourth grade. She was adopted by the family and she began to change. Despite all the baggage of her early life and her short time with her new family, she is now a model student. She earned a well-deserved 4.0 this year."

Stark added that Angelina serves as a role model for other students and is well liked and very happy. "She's never put her past as excuses. She has a positive can-do attitude."

David Gallagher

Sam Vaughn kindergartner David Gallagher was lauded by Principal Amy Peterman. She recalled meeting David last summer during the school's early back kindergarten program. Peterman walked up to a long line of incoming kindergartners at 9:30 in the morning and saw David with his big eyes ask, "Are you here to take me home?"

"School was a new experience for him," said Peterman. "It didn't take us long to develop a very quick fondness for this young man. But he did have a very difficult time maintaining any kind of focus. It was not unusual to walk into his classroom and see him sitting on the lap of his teacher on a regular basis. We quickly learned that David has had a very difficult upbringing. He is now living with some wonderful extended family members."

She explained that David is regularly attending school and behaving well and making progress.

"We expect fantastic things in his future," said Peterman.

Zackary Grasty-Flowers

Principal Marla Mack of Westport Elementary School honored sixth-grader Zackary Grasty-Flowers who has increased his level of discipline.

"We noticed his incredible support system and his incredible change and we wanted to recognize him for that," said Mack. "Zack continues daily to work in these area ... to improve."

She added that based on his effort, Zack "will be the young man that he can be."

Jasmine Carrillo

Walter White fourth-grader Jasmine Carrillo was honored by Principal Jose Beltran.

"Many students face tremendous obstacles in their lives," said Beltran. "Some students face life's challenges head-on ... (Jasmine) has done that."

Obstacles included family hardships, including getting into her father's custody at second grade. At the time Jasmine couldn't read.

"She is advanced in English language arts and proficient in math," said Beltran. "We're very proud of her determination. She tries real hard every single day. When other students might have given up, she continues and succeeded and provided a great example for Walter White."

Raven Caramella

Raven Caramella, a fifth-grader from the Whitmore Charter School of Art & Technology, was celebrated by Principal Paula Smith.

"There are students who come into your school," said Smith, "that you remember. They just pop out at you and Raven was one of them. The very first day she walked in, she had this bright smile and said, 'I'm ready to go. Where's my classroom?' And I fell in love with her."

Raven was diagnosed with Type I diabetes and wears an insulin pump.

"Raven has really impacted my life and my classroom," said her teacher Dolores Sauls. "She is advanced in math and advanced in Language Arts. And what I love about Raven is she monitors herself. She never stops. I honestly believe that Raven's going to be a leader one day. She's an awesome student."

Javier Rodriguez

Mae Hensley Junior High eighth-grader Javier Rodriguez was nominated for the award by teacher Arnulfo Barajas.

"He is one of our outstanding students at our school," said Principal Lynda Maben.

Last year Javier was diagnosed with myletis which paralyzed his lungs and the left side of his body. Despite being in the hospital for three months, he continued to study thanks to his parents who shuttled lessons back and forth from school to hospital room. He maintained a 4.0 grade point average through it all.

"He attends soccer every day now," said Maben, "giving the kids a 'rah-rah, you can do it' and he inspires the entire team to work hard and do well."

Reatha Calhoun

Argus Continuation High junior Reatha Calhoun was Principal Jan Gordon's shining example of a student who overcame obstacles.

Reatha's special day class teacher Kathy Haygood said that as a sophomore, Reatha was "very reserved, quiet, withdrawn and very afraid about whether she was going to graduate. She was down on credits and said, 'I can't do it.' She has taken full advantage of everything Argus has to offer, with the support of her family and as a junior she will be completing her education in June. She's in regular education classes pulling straight A's. She's an outstanding role model. She is on our Student Council. She is the ideal student, which is why I come to work every day."

Haygood mentioned that Reatha was "going through the napkins like crazy" crying over the stories of the other students at the breakfast.

Reatha will be a success in college, Haygood predicted.

Billy Bob Muirhead

Ceres Adult School student Billy Bob Muirhead was selected by Principal Laran Gambs.

Muirhead left school about 18 years ago and went back to school at the inspiration of his son's kindergarten teacher. He's earning his high school diploma in May.

"It's no major story," said Muirhead. "In my junior year I had some family issues that brought me to the point of making a decision whether to continue school or go to work and help the family, which is not uncommon. Through the years (I) just became stubborn, tried to go back a couple of times, conflicting work schedules prohibiting me from finishing school. So since 1990 I've been a negative statistic. This year I'm going into the positive category.

"Last year my son advanced from kindergarten. In talking to his teacher at Whitmore Charter School, Mrs. (Sharon) Burnett, her husband after 45 plus years returned to school and got his diploma. And I started thinking I'm not going to be that far out and most definitely need to get a graduation before this guy."

Joseph Espinoza

La Rosa fifth-grader Joseph "Joey" Espinoza was celebrated by Principal Lori Mariani.

One of a set of quadruplets, Joey was a premature baby who suffered feeding issues that compromised his health. He was later diagnosed with mild cerebral palsy which affected the development of his growth motor skills, fine motor skills and speech. Joey also has vision problems.

"Joey's education began as an infant," said Mariani. "He received several services from the county including physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech and language, adaptive P.E., as well as vision therapy.

"At first Joey was frustrated with these challenges and his desire to do what other students were able to do. This resulted in some 'acting out' behaviors ... but that didn't last for long. Through a positive attitude, a strong spirit and determination, Joey was able to meet his challenges and persevere. He loves school, he loves his teacher, Mr. (Adam) Lawrence - he calls him 'Mr. A' and his classmates. He continues to advance academically and adapt physically. He is a happy student. He enthusiastically greets all people that come to La Rosa."

Joey also loves learning about trucks and love students. Mariani said he encourages other students for coming up with right answers.

Paul Luna

Blaker-Kinser Junior High eighth-grader Paul Luna was recognized by Assistant Principal Eve Quesada.

"When you have students for two years it is often very difficult to see a true turn-around," said Quesada. "And I feel very fortunate that I've had that experience in my two years at Blaker Kinser. Paul came into our school .... as kind of one of those heavy-duty gang members, one of those students we call a 'frequent flyer,' they're in the office all the time. By the end of the year he was this close to expulsion."

After being at 17 schools, he was taken in by his caring aunt and uncle and "realized he needed to turn things around," said Quesada. "Paul has gone through this whole year and has never come to the office once even once on a referral. He is seen as his peers as someone that has gotten out of that world and can really make a difference.

"Now Paul's headed to high school and college and onto being an architect, which is a dream."

He thanked staff members as well as his aunt and uncle for believing in him and "helping me change."

"Now I plan to go to college," Paul said.

Carlos Muñoz

Central Valley High senior Carlos Muñoz was tapped for special recognition by Principal Roberto Serrato.

"I know he's overcome many challenges and is succeeding," said Serrato of Munoz.

Assistant Principal Laura Fong said she's known Carlos for three years, his learning director for two years.

"At that time his mother was diagnosed with cancer, had some serious heart issues," said Fong. "They were told a couple of times that she wasn't going to make it. They overcame that. Carlos had a little trouble with his school work and his grades. He's doing much better now. However, this year he himself was diagnosed with cancer and he goes to the doctor a couple of times a month, takes some medications. He still plays football. He still comes to school. His mom makes it to all of his appointments. And Carlos, I just think, is a real inspiration. He has so much going on and he still comes to school every day. He still makes his grades and he still has the most positive attitude of anybody I know."

Amber Rogers

Ceres High School counselor Brian Murphy recognized senior Amber Rogers for facing much adversity.

"As the result of being born with spina bifida and a car accident at the age of three, Amber spends most of her time in a wheelchair," said Murphy. "Last November Amber's home and all the family belongings were destroyed by a terrible house fire. Nurtured by her caring teachers, staff members, friends and her family, Amber has learned to deal with the physical restrictions, her losses, bullying and self doubts. She began expressing her feelings through journal writings and through poetry. Now she's writing full songs that inspire others to wonder and hope and to persevere when things seem possible."

Murphy added that Rogers' daily presence at CHS is a reminder that "life is not about dwelling on our challenges but rather using those challenges as motivation to succeed."

Amber will graduate in June and plans to attend Modesto Junior College.