Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of June 14, 1999
Native students beat the odds
Awards honour those who have overcome difficulties
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
Poverty, abuse, prejudice, and even drugs and alcohol are part of their backgrounds. In spite of all odds, they are trying hard to overcome their difficulties and now are an example to others.
Thirty one native students from Edmonton Catholic Schools proudly stood on the podium of the University of Alberta's Faculty Club June 4 to receive the 1999 most-improved student awards.
Accompanied by their teachers, counsellors, friends and family members, the students were recognized "just for being themselves and for trying hard in school to better themselves and to be role models for other students," said Eva Bereti, an elder in the Wahkotowin Student Society.
"Some have been on drugs before, in situations that are not very becoming. Now they are trying hard to overcome their difficulties and finish school."
School representatives who introduced the students offered glimpses of the students' lives and the obstacles they have overcome in their struggles to break the cycle of poverty.
Melissa Ellen Mathes, 18, a single mother of a 18-month baby daughter and expecting her second child in August, dropped out of school in Grade 10 because of personal difficulties.
"I guess I was hanging out with the wrong crowd," she says.
Her desire to provide a better life to her daughter Kaylin led her back to school in March 1998. Now she is successfully completing Grades 10 and 11 at Fresh Start North program.
"It was my daughter who brought me back to school," she says. Her goal is to go to university to become a social worker so she can help other kids in trouble. "I know I can do it."
Fresh Start teacher Marc Poirier is confident in Melissa.
"In spite of Melissa's transient history, she has demonstrated qualities of responsibility and motivation not only in her school work, but also in her personal life and goals she wishes to reach," he said. Last year Melissa had "a phenomenal year" at school, earning 40 credits.
Craig Vivier, 13, is completing Grade 8 at Cardinal Leger School. His biggest area of improvement is attendance. In Grade 7 many teachers noted Craig had a lot of potential, but they couldn't get him into the classroom.
They tried. His principal even picked him up at home a few times but coming to school was not in Craig's plans. "School was boring," he recalls. "I guess I was not satisfied with what I was doing. I didn't think I was good enough."
This year Craig had what counsellor Mario Lepore terms a "a bit of a change in attitude" and found his way to class on his own. His grades have improved and so has his self- esteem.
Now he realizes "I have a lot of potential" and is determined to improve his life. His goal is to get into law school.
Scott Redcrow, a Grade 10 student at St. Francis Xavier School, missed a lot of school at the beginning of the year because he lacked motivation. Like Craig, he found school "painfully boring."
Four months ago his grandparents opened his eyes to the benefits of a good education and Scott began attending class regularly and handing in assignments. His marks have improved and so has his determination.
"I want to finish high school. I want to be a police officer," the 15-year-old says. "The award means a lot to me. It motivates me to do a lot better."
For Crystal Bonner, a Grade 9 student at J.J. Bowlen, school has been hard because of her struggle with cerebral palsy.
When she entered junior high, "Crystal was extremely shy and she found it hard to make friends," noted teacher Paulette Mayville.
But in the three years she has been at J.J. Bowlen she has made a lot of friends and has overcome her condition "beautifully," never letting the cerebral palsy get in the way. "When she sets her mind to a task very little will distract her."
Mayville described Crystal, 15, as a dedicated, friendly student who has a gift for story-telling.
"I've been trying really, really hard," Crystal told the WCR, pausing to dry her tears. Her goal is to go to college to become a child-care worker.
She said the award will push her to "try even harder."
Luncheon speaker Travis Dugas, a gifted native dancer who has performed around the world and was one of the first recipients of the award 11 years ago, urged students to be proud of being native.
They should focus on future possibilities rather than on past hardships, he said.
By excelling in school, Dugas said, students show pride in their native heritage.
Dr. Cora Voyageur, a professor of sociology at the University of Calgary and the first native woman in Alberta to earn a doctorate, reminded students that being native in Canada means "there will be a lot of obstacles."
"Don't think it's going to be easy," Voyageur told her audience. "If there is anything I can say to you today it's please, don't quit."
Wahkotowin (Cree for kinship) Society is a group of native women who value education for young native people. The society sponsors the most improved awards to encourage native students.
"Few of us can imagine the strength and purpose of mind that it takes for these young people to come to school each day when their families are subjected to poverty, abuse and prejudice," Bereti said.
"Yet each day they come with courage and quiet dignity to try and try again."