The music cues, and a stream of cloaked teenagers in tasseled caps march forward. After 13 years of elementary, middle and high school, it’s all come to this: graduation day.

Along that journey, some have become stars in the stadium, some have basked in the limelight, and some have advanced to the head of the class.

But others have excelled in a completely different way. They’ve overcome trials and hardships, often beating odds that others wouldn’t have conquered.

These are the stories of neighborhood graduates who, in the dawn of life, have outshined some of life’s darkest moments.

***

KATE WELLS died during an eighth-grade trip to the Rocky Mountains.

Several attacks of cardiac arrest stopped her heart before an emergency crew arrived, revived her and took her by helicopter off the Colorado mountainside.

The terrifying incident left her with a renewed confidence and strengthened sense of purpose.

“It affirmed my faith, which was already strong because of my upbringing, but I figured that if I can survive 20 heart attacks, well, I believe now that I can do anything … I can’t help but thinking I was spared for a reason.”

Turns out Wells has a rare congenital heart condition called Long-QT Syndrome, which had exhibited no symptoms prior to that day at camp. Once she was diagnosed, doctors implanted a pacemaker defibrillator in her chest — the device shocks her heart when it acts up.

Stress, diet, sleeplessness or overexertion can cause heart irregularities that trigger the shock, which feels “like a horse kicking you in the chest,” Wells says. The health situation put a damper on Wells’ ambition to play high school hockey.

“I wasn’t always that graceful or especially athletic, but for some reason I had always wanted to play hockey. But now that dream was over,” she says.

Undaunted, she signed on as Bishop Lynch High School’s hockey team manager.

“I hope I have a positive impact on the team,” she says. She does, and more, according to team leaders.

“Kate is, and I can’t stress this enough, one in a million,” says hockey coach Jason Crown. “She has an infectious smile and positive outlook on every situation. She is a kind soul who will help any in need without question, will brighten the rainiest of days or make a sunny one more enjoyable.”

Says junior varsity coach Chuck Hinton: “She is undeniably one of the most important members of the team. Her positive attitude is contagious. While we are happy she is graduating, she will be missed greatly. I know she will do great things in the future.”

The endlessly optimistic senior hopes to study computer science or engineering next year.

“I haven’t exactly decided on anything yet. I just want to build something and make it work.”

Sure, Wells thinks about the future, but for her, it’s more about living — and laughing — in the moment.

***

Troy Larkins, like other members of the Woodrow baseball team, is dressed in suit and tie.

It’s a game day tradition.

The spiffily dressed senior apologizes for being a few minutes behind schedule — he was just signing up to be on the Woodrow prom committee, he says. For Larkins, time to focus on activities such as baseball and prom is a luxury he hasn’t known before. Just a few years ago, he was working so tirelessly to help support his family that he couldn’t even go to class.

“My mom and two brothers and two sisters and I lived in Oklahoma. We were living on and off in shelters, and I had to work my freshman and sophomore years and quit school.”

Since age 12, Larkins often shouldered the responsibility of caring for younger siblings and earning income through fast food gigs and tough construction jobs.

Eventually, Larkins left his mom and siblings in Oklahoma and moved to our neighborhood to live with his dad; he spent a year at Bryan Adams before transferring to Woodrow Wilson as a junior last year.

After settling in and becoming involved in extra-curricular activities and sports, he felt at home at Woodrow — he actually felt like a kid again. But as any kid would, he misses his mom and brothers and sisters.

“It hurts being away from them. I try to visit them when I can, and I really hope they can come here for my graduation,” he says.

Even though he’s separated from part of his family, Larkins says he’s optimistic.

“I’ve learned something from everything I’ve been through. I want my mom to know that. I really want to take the opportunity I have now to set an example for them, my brothers and sisters, that being in a bad situation is no excuse not to succeed.”

Larkins plans to go to college, though hasn’t yet determined where. Wherever he goes, though, he says his past has prepared him for whatever life throws his way.

“Life is not breaking you down, even though it might feel like it,” he says. “It’s just getting you ready.”

***

Christina Maturino, at 18, is already a star. The bilingual Woodrow senior hosts “Zona”, the Spanish version of “School Zone Dallas”, a student-produced TV program sponsored by Dallas ISD. She also sings in Woodrow’s choral group, has performed over the years in the high school’s renowned musicals, and is the drill team captain — and she’s not one of those ditzy starlet types either.

The neighborhood native also is president of the National Honor Society and a member of the student council; she interns at a law firm and works with Interact, a Rotary Club-sponsored group that assists the East Dallas community.

Maturino was raised by a single mother who immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico — a mother who worked two jobs to provide basic needs for her children. That meant Maturino often had to care for her younger brother and sister.

While it was tough at times, Maturino says her mother’s strong spirit has rubbed off on her.

“My mom gave up so much for us. I remember her coming home sweaty and exhausted from her job at a textile factory,” Maturino says. “But she worked so hard that she eventually became head of housekeeping at her other job. She drives me. I try to emulate her.”

Despite her impressive achievements, Maturino doesn’t see herself as all that different from many of the other students at Woodrow.

“A lot of kids have the same background as me, and any of them are capable of doing the same [things I have done],” she says. “It doesn’t matter what your circumstances are — it’s all about what you want to make of it. Opportunities are there, you just have to take them.”

Maturino credits the Woodrow staff and students with much of her success, calling the school a tight-knit community. She hopes to study law, and has already been accepted into several colleges, including Southern Methodist University and the University of Texas.

***

Gustavo Vasquez is dressed sharply in a dark suit and silky tie — and his formal attire has nothing to do with the fact that an Advocate magazine photographer is getting ready to shoot his portrait.

“I’m dressed this way because we have a baseball game tonight.”

He says a coach taught him years ago about taking pride in the way you look because it affects the way you feel and perform.

But Vasquez didn’t always feel good about himself.

He spent much of his life in a rough neighborhood where, he says, “you always had to watch your back.” Because the neighborhood was tough, he felt like he had to act tough and mean, and he constantly walked around feeling “no love, no hope and no real future.” Attending Woodrow Wilson High School helped change Vasquez’s attitude and life.

“I don’t really even feel like the same person now, and I know I’m still changing for the better.”

His biggest influences have been Eric Zehner and Braden Howell, two mentors assigned to him through the Dallas Rotary Club. The goal of the mentoring program is to prepare students for a successful college career, but Vasquez says his mentors have done even more.

“They help me out with just fitting in, being part of the community, interacting with new people,” he says. “To me, they are like a second family.”

He also credits former Woodrow teacher Darvin Spinger with encouraging students, no matter what their circumstances, to go to college.

“He is the reason I am going to be the first person in my family ever to attend college.”

In addition to playing on the Wildcat baseball team, Vasquez is a member of the National Honor Society and Interact, and he’s the Academic Success Program president. He says one of the most important things he has learned is to listen.

“There’s nothing wrong with listening to adults. A lot of times, they’ve been through the same things you’ve been through.” Vasquez isn’t sure where he’ll attend college yet, but he knows he wants to earn an MBA in business computer information systems.

As an adult, Vasquez says he plans to give back to the neighborhood — to do for someone else what others have done for him.

***

Savannah Allan’s dad died of a heroin overdose before she was old enough to know him, leaving her mom alone to raise 2-year-old Allan and her baby sister.

Although her life got off to a rough start, she says drawing from her mother’s strength and persistence helped make her an outstanding student, athlete and contributor to her school and our neighborhood — all the while insisting her struggles are “relatively small and that she’s just had to put in a little extra work.”

Much of that extra work comes in the form of about 25 hours per week waiting tables at Alfonso’s Italian restaurant near White Rock Lake. With the money earned, she pays for her own car, insurance and cell phone, and she also pays, in part, her own tuition at Bishop Lynch, as well as for extras like prom or homecoming dances.

“When my dad died, he left my sister and I a college fund, but we used that up paying for high school.”

A scholarship during her junior year helped foot the high school bill. Allan’s mom works a full-time customer service job to support her girls and help send them to the private high school.

While attending Lynch has been a financial strain at times (it costs about $11,000 per year per student), it’s worth it, Allan says. She is enrolled in the Advanced Placement program and earns grades that place her in the top 10 percent of her class, she runs cross-country and track, she has participated in mission trips to Honduras, and she serves as president of the community service club at Lynch.

“The need to work, I think, has made me more disciplined — I’ve even learned to function well when I’m sleep deprived,” she says.

“I’ve seen several family members on my dad’s side addicted to drugs — not just him but two of my uncles also died from [overdose]. But that has taught me to avoid the stuff.”

She thinks her experiences put her in a better position to help others, too.

“We go and work with the [elementary students] at Truett, and they might think the kids from BL are rich. But I feel like I can relate to them in a lot of ways.”

The biggest driving force behind Allan’s success, she says, is her mother.

“She has given up a ton for me. I see what she has gone through, and I just want to do everything I can for her.”

***

John Moore’s beaming smile and cheery disposition belie a tragedy-marked past. You’d never know the Bishop Lynch cheerleader grew up without his parents, or that his sole caretaker — a sick grandfather — died unexpectedly when Moore was just 10 years old. Instead, Moore’s struggles made him grateful for the good things in life.

He has, after all, benefited from extraordinary acts of kindness. When his wheelchair-bound grandfather died from medication complications eight years ago, a 24-year old family friend, Gina, took responsibility for Moore and his 12-year-old sister. Gina kept the siblings in Catholic school using money their grandfather had left in his will, but the funds ran out at the end of Moore’s freshman year.

No sooner had he enrolled in public school then he received a call from Bishop Lynch informing him that an anonymous donor had paid the tab for his sophomore school year.

“To this day, I don’t know who it is,” Moore says, “but they are still paying for my school.”

Moore focuses on the love, rather than the letdowns, maintaining a peppy personality and an ability to bounce back from adversity.

“There was a time when I was shy and closed off, and I wasn’t having fun. Then I made a decision to talk to everyone and make as many friends as possible.”

He took some flack when he decided to try out for cheerleading — he would be the first male cheerleader at the school in seven years.

“People bad-mouthed me, gave me a hard time … but I just kept my head up.”

Today Moore is a competitive gymnast and a staple of Lynch’s award-winning cheer squad. Academically, he earns As and Bs.

“BL is tough, but school comes first,” he says.

He also teaches gymnastics to kids and stays active virtually nonstop to make it all work. He plans to attend college to become a physical therapist, which will make him the first in his immediate family to receive a higher education.

Things have never been easy — “I’ve never seen my dad. I think he might be in jail,” Moore says.

His mom has long battled substance abuse problems. “She’s been around off and on. I see her about every six months or so,” he says, adding that she is currently sober.

He hasn’t seen his older sister in years. “She took a different route than me, I guess.”

But Moore is willing to work hard in order to keep the good stuff coming.

“I don’t want to be labeled as that poor kid who’s had a bad life,” he says. “It’s not about what happens to us, but how we respond to what happens to us.”


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