Don’t count her out
The day that Shelli Orona wore her slippers to school was a turning point for the former dropout. This time, nothing — not even the shooting death of her boyfriend — would keep her from finishing high school.
Shelli first dropped out of school during her sophomore year at Woodrow Wilson High School. She had failed eighth grade, was fighting and ended up in court for truancy. She planned to make money and be independent. Instead, she found herself in a factory working long hours for little money.
“I was going to drop out, go to work, stack up money and move out, but it’s really hard,” she says. “Just a waste of time.”
It would be two years before she made her way back to school.
Shelli says she was stressed and “tired of being tired.” She felt she was disappointing everyone and didn’t deserve any help. She realized that the jobs she could get weren’t going to pay for the life she envisioned for herself, a life that included traveling the world. “I needed to come back to school if I wanted to do all that,” she says.
First, she needed to repair family relationships. Her mother suffers from multiple sclerosis, has difficulty getting around and doing things for herself. Her parents divorced when Shelli was 8, leaving her to help care for her mother. The family moved from apartment to apartment, causing stress that led her to some bad decisions.
Last spring, Shelli moved back in with her mother. When she encouraged Shelli to go back to school, Shelli enrolled at Texans Can Academy, a charter school in East Dallas with a flexible schedule that helps students who struggle in the traditional high school environment.
But getting back to school after two years wasn’t easy. “It was weird, I forgot how to write my name,” she says. “It was good to be back with kids my age, but I forgot how to act in school.”
She showed up at Texans Can one day wearing slippers. Sparks flew between her and student adviser Maraiha Ajala. The school requires closed-toed shoes.
“The first thing I noticed was her attitude,” Ajala says.
It was a pivotal moment for Shelli. It would have been easy to go back home and stay out of school, but something made her put on shoes and come back.
Ajala was there to make sure Shelli had what she needed to be successful. “Here she came, in uniform. ‘This girl wants to be here,’ ” Ajala thought to herself. She told Shelli, “Let’s bring our 10 down to a two. You just need to come talk to me.”
Shelli says, “I started to feel our connection, and after that I just stayed focused. I didn’t let anything get in my way.”
Ajala mentored Shelli, often calling her to encourage her to keep coming to school. At Texans Can, students come for a morning or afternoon session as they work to complete their first two years of coursework in a classroom before finishing high school via a self-paced curriculum online.
Shelli began to thrive.
She had never passed her state exams on the first try, but she managed to do so every time this year. In November, Shelli’s boyfriend was shot and killed just hours after seeing her and days before she took her state exams. She declines to discuss the tragedy further. Her success in the midst of her grief is a testament to her dedication. “I knew I had to do everything for him,” she says.
Shelli plans to study accounting at the University of Texas at Arlington when she graduates, but she is also interested in the environment and has sold her art at an auction for Texans Can. She looks forward to internships in the healthcare field and with a law firm arranged through her school.
“I want everybody to know that you can do anything, even when it is hard,” Shelli says. “It’s never too late to do good with yourself.” n
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