Standout students: Sometimes the toughest lessons are learned outside the classroom

High school and our experiences there often leave lifelong memories. Or scars. Imagine navigating those formative and frequently frustrating years while bearing an extraordinary burden — illness, disability, poverty, homelessness, parental abandonment or death, for example. The graduating seniors featured herein have endured a lifetime’s worth of adversity in their 18 years. In spite of, or possibly partly because of these challenges, they have managed to shine.

Meet tomorrow’s leaders.

Chima Nsi: Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Chima Nsi

Linda Hardeman lost her job when her son, Chima Nsi, was in eighth grade.

Having previously gotten by from paycheck to paycheck, the family was forced to move out of their apartment and into an emergency shelter.

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Hardeman has struggled to find another job. Over the past few years, she has taken odd jobs such as sewing and baking to support her family, which also includes an adult daughter. They stick together as a tight, church-going family, but they still don’t have a place of their own. They live with relatives in Hutchins and their struggle continues.

Chima says his life is more stable now, but there were times when he was uncertain how his family would get by from day to day.

Chima says his life is more stable now, but there were times when he was uncertain how his family would get by from day to day. Even when he could settle his worries enough to concentrate on homework, it was hard to find the time and a quiet place. He fell behind in his studies, but counselors and teachers helped him get back on track last year.

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Despite all the turmoil of his high school years, Chima, a 17-year-old Kimball High School senior, will graduate this month and go to Prairie View A&M University; he plans to study political science.
Taking those steps toward higher education and a career puts Chima ahead of the dismal statistics for homeless youth.

Texas has the highest population of homeless children in America, according to a 2015 study from the National Center on Family Homelessness. The center estimates 337,105 children from newborns to age 17 are homeless in this state; about 31,000 of them are high school students.

The study found that fewer than 25 percent of those students would be likely to graduate from high school.

Oak Cliff-based nonprofit Promise House specializes in helping homeless teenagers.
Paloma Belmarez, now 37, was one of them. Born and reared in Oak Cliff, she ran away from home at age 15. She lagged so far behind in school that she wanted to drop out.

“You’re severely behind in school, and it’s so easy to throw in the towel, and that’s just a catalyst for so many more problems,” Belmarez says.

A little bit of help goes a long way, she says. Belmarez came from a middle-class, two-parent home with no obvious turmoil. Her bad behavior escalated to a point that she couldn’t see a way of turning it around. She felt rotten. But with family counseling at Promise House, she found her way back. She transferred from a private school to Kimball and was able to graduate on time by taking extra courses.

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Eventually she earned a psychology degree from the University of Texas at Dallas and returned to work as a counselor at Promise House.

“We have young adults that haven’t finished their GED or high school because they don’t know how to get back on track,” she says. “It makes me so sad when I see situations like that because I can see how I could’ve become a high-school dropout myself and stayed that way.”

Chima Nsi says his hardworking mother is what keeps him focused on a better future.

“For a long time, I felt like we were never going to be able to make it. But I realized that if my mom is still pushing and still fighting, why should I give up?” he says. “Other than God, she’s been my No. 1 motivation.”

The Robinson brothers

Kenneth and Ben Robinson: Photo by Danny Fulgencio
Kenneth and Ben Robinson: Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Brothers Kenneth and Ben Robinson look alike. People who have known them for years still confuse one for the other. Even their names are alike. Which is Ken and which is Ben?

The similarities don’t end there. The brothers, about a year apart in age, are both officers in Kimball High School’s ROTC program. Ken is a senior, Ben is a junior. They both prefer staying home with video games rather than going out on a Friday night. And both are expected to be valedictorians of their respective classes.

That’s despite suffering a tragedy four years ago, when they were in seventh and eighth grades. After years of sobriety, their mom relapsed into drug addiction and died.

Children whose parents struggle with serious drug addiction are more likely to suffer abuse, mental health issues and their own problems with substance abuse. But that is not the story for the Robinsons

Even though she had her struggles, their mom, Carla Robinson, always encouraged them to be good students. She had dropped out of school in 11th grade, and she wanted a better life for her boys, Ken says.

“When we were little, she would take us to the zoo every week,” he says. “She would take us to Six Flags every summer. She cooked. She helped us with our homework as much as she could. And besides that, she was just a cool person to be around.”

Children whose parents struggle with serious drug addiction are more likely to suffer abuse, mental health issues and their own problems with substance abuse.

But that is not the story for the Robinsons.

Kenneth Robinson is a finalist for the Gates Millennium Scholarship. If he wins that coveted scholarship, an academic full ride, he plans to attend Texas A&M University. If not, it’s no big loss. He has so many scholarships to Prairie View A&M University that he would be paid about $10,000 a year to attend. Either way, his ultimate goal is the same: to earn a degree in nuclear physics and join the U.S. Marine Corps as an officer.

“I want to be a general,” he says.

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Kenneth rose quickly through the ranks of Kimball’s ROTC program and last year became battalion commander, even though other students tried to hold him back. He’s put in 200 hours of community service with ROTC and he says “no” is fuel to his fire.

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“I got sick of people telling me what I couldn’t do,” he says.

The Robinson brothers have a very supportive family, especially in their dad, Kenneth Robinson Sr., and his girlfriend, Archie Marshall. Their dad takes them hunting in the winter and canoeing in summer. Every Tuesday is “BNO,” boys night out with dad and buddies who are like uncles to the boys.

Kenneth Robinson Sr. is extremely proud of his sons, but they earn so many accolades that it’s almost hard to keep up, he says.

“They’ve always been good students and good kids,” he says.

The younger Kenneth is hard on the members of his ROTC battalion; he expects them to work as hard as he does.

He’s working on his valedictorian speech, and that’s likely to be the gist of it.

“I don’t take anybody’s excuses,” he says. “There’s always a way for you to rise back up to the top.”

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