05/30/04 — Graduation -- Overcoming obstacles

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Graduation -- Overcoming obstacles

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on May 30, 2004 9:16 AM

When Jenifer Cruz was a high school freshman, the occupational prep course of study was not among her options. It was introduced along with college and vocational courses two years later.

The requirements were stringent -- regular academic classes plus 900 hours divided into three categories. Those categories are 300 hours of school-based jobs, 240 hours of volunteer work in the community, and 360 hours of paid work.

Jenifer, 18, is classified as a special needs student and has speech apraxia, which affects her ability to communicate. But those were not the only obstacles she overcame.

Her parents died when she was 9, and she was in foster care before moving in with her aunt and uncle, Dee and Thomas Castro of Pikeville.

Joe Strouse, an exceptional-children's teacher at Charles B. Aycock High School, said Jenifer was given the choice of taking an extra year to complete the requirements, but instead she decided to buckle down and finish with her senior class. She also graduated with honors.

"She handled the workload," he said. "She is a very conscientious young lady and wanted to make sure she did it right."

He said she has worked hard to get where she is and is proud of what she's accomplished.

But there were other challenges.

"More people than ever before picked on me," she says quietly.

Mrs. Castro agrees that some kids were cruel at times. But some have been nice. One stood out from the crowd.

"Jenifer met a girl her freshman year, who was a senior at the time, and she has mentored her all these years," she said.

Alicia Thigpen saw that Jenifer didn't have many friends, Mrs. Castro said, and asked a staff member at the school about becoming friends with her. The staff member called Mrs. Castro and asked if Jenifer would be comfortable with that.

"She asked if we would mind that another student wanted to spend time with Jennifer," she said.

"She was a very nice, caring young lady. It was very nice and we kind of thought it was just going to be for that year."

The upperclassman encouraged others to do nice things for Jenifer, such as making a cake and celebrating her birthday or giving her a Valentine's Day basket. In return, Jenifer gave them all coupons for free lunch at McDonalds restaurant.

"We kind of thought it would fizzle out after Alicia graduated," Mrs. Castro said.

It didn't.

Alicia, now a student at Wayne Community College, has remained in touch and attended graduation to support her friend.

"The thing that we hold most valuable," says Mrs. Castro, "is how it has allowed Jenifer to spend normal teen-age time with her friends.

"She doesn't drive, and they don't have a lot of the same interests. Alicia really goes out of her way to make sure Jenifer gets those experiences."

Though high school has been difficult at times, Jenifer remained on the principal's honor list consistently and received awards this year for outstanding achievement and citizenship.

And in the midst of it all, she remained grateful.

"She's extremely sensitive and she takes care of herself and other people," Mrs. Castro said.

"It has been very bad at times but she was strong. She would say, 'They can say all they want, but I have a family that loves me and a home that is a happy place.'"