Operation Graduation 2013: Caitlin Hill (Elgin, Ill.)

Date: July 11, 2013

I would guess that for the good majority of students, looking back on their years in elementary, middle and high school, brings to mind countless happy memories of friends, teachers, the exciting experience of learning, as well as the transformation from an apprehensive, inexperienced kindergartner to a responsible, self-confident high school senior with a promising future. In a perfect world, that would most likely be the case. But what if you just didn’t fit into the mold of what society might consider a “normal” student? Reflecting back on those years can bring an overwhelming feeling of sadness, isolation, torment and the never-ending feeling like you were always on the outside looking in. Unfortunately, children can be extremely cruel – especially to those fellow students that don’t live up to their “standards.” God help you if you weren’t attractive, popular, cool or rich enough. There were definitely two categories of students – the “haves” and the “have nots” – and being labeled the latter made for a very unpleasant experience.

Unfortunately, I can tell you firsthand what it’s like to ostracized, ridiculed and made to feel insignificant. Fortunately, I had one thing going for me that allowed me to keep one foot in the “green zone”; I was an awesome athlete that excelled in both soccer and basketball. Being part of the “jock” crowd was probably the only thing that kept me from being forced into total oblivion. So while I felt the warmth and acceptance of a select group of students for a time, the majority made me feel like a freak and completely shattered my self-image and self-esteem. And it wasn’t just fellow students that made me feel that way. Teachers, subs, office staff, etc., definitely had their “favorites”…once referred to as the “Stepford children” by my mom when she didn’t realize I was listening. When I asked her what she meant by that, I immediately understood. These were the “perfect” children from the “right” families. I was diagnosed with ADHD at a very early age, and although I was on daily medication, it was still a challenge for me to focus on my lessons, sit still for long periods of time, control my impulsiveness and remain in total compliance at all times. This frustrated many of my teachers, who quite honestly, did not know how to handle children with special needs.

As I transitioned to middle school, my problems seemed to escalate. The change in daily routine (moving from classroom to classroom), being thrown in with a whole new group of kids from other grade schools that I didn’t know, and faced with even stricter rules, made school unbearable for me. I was miserable. And because I was “disruptive” and didn’t always follow all the rules (like not wearing baseball caps or using my cell phone in school), I spent more than my fair share of time in the principal’s and guidance counselor’s offices, or in detention. My only refuge was hanging out with other kids that had behavioral problems or just didn’t fit it. Unfortunately, this particular crowd had much bigger and more serious issues than I had – such as drug and alcohol problems, abusive and/or apathetic parents who let them run wild, and often skipping school.

With perseverance and the support of my family, I made it through to eighth grade graduation and was looking ahead to moving on to South Elgin High School. But what should have been an exciting, promising time and a perfect opportunity to start fresh at a new school, quickly became a repeat of the same issues experienced in middle school. I just could NOT fit it. Sitting in the confines of the school building for close to eight hours was pure torture. I again found myself a frequent visitor to the dean’s office, detention and occasionally was suspended. In the second semester of my sophomore year, I was told that I was no longer welcome at South Elgin High and was being transferred to the alternative program at Gifford Street High School. Having to go to this school was my worst nightmare. I felt like I was in prison. After sticking it out for a few months, and multiple meetings with U-46 District staff, it was looking like I might become a high school dropout statistic.

It was at this lowest point of my life that the conversations turned to placing me in the Ombudsman program. It was crystal clear that the conventional high school environment was not for me. After obtaining a referral from the district, and meeting with Mrs. Baker at the Bloomingdale location, I started my journey down Ombudsman’s “alternative path” and was given the greatest gift…the opportunity to turn my life around.

From the first day at the center, I was treated with respect, given personal attention, encouragement to make positive choices, and the academic support that I really needed. That’s not to say I still didn’t have my challenges. Even with the short school day, having to sit at a desk for three solid hours in a relatively small facility, made me feel antsy and claustrophobic. Mrs. Baker immediately recognized that I was struggling and offered yet another opportunity for success…completing the program from home. This truly was the turning point for me. Once I was able to work out of the comfort and safety of my own house, with few distractions and significantly less stress, and most importantly, allow me to work at my own pace, I knew this was the program for me. Basically being in control of my own schedule, gave me a huge sense of empowerment – something I had never felt before.

Ombudsman not only allowed me to graduate high school and receive an “official” district diploma, it played a major role in giving me a second chance in life. I am now a strong, proud and self-confident person. I have been given a feeling of self-worth and have learned to respect myself. The Ombudsman program and philosophy helped me realize that I was really making bad choices and opened my eyes to the fact that I was associating with the wrong crowd and putting myself at risk. I have cut all of those negative influences out of my life and am focusing on a bright and successful future.

I am planning to enroll in the College of DuPage’s Culinary Arts program so I can turn my passion for cooking into a promising career. I honestly thought I would never get to this place… and I wouldn’t have if it wasn’t for Ombudsman. Words cannot express my gratitude for what the program did for me. It truly saved my life.

My one regret is that my father did not live to see how I’ve turned my life around and all that I have accomplished. Losing him last August was definitely traumatic for me, but it also gave me renewed spirit to continue to reach my goals. Making him and my mom (who stood by me every step of the way) proud is probably the greatest accomplishment of all.

Thank you Ombudsman!  I couldn’t have done it without you!

Photo Credit: Favim


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