Life isn’t always easy, and that’s a hard lesson for anyone to learn.
Karen Cruz, a recent Bethlehem Academy graduate, learned this lesson during her high school career. Receiving her high school diploma was an uphill battle, and she wanted to give up several times along the way. But with the help of supportive parents and staff members, she bounced back from a tough situation to complete her high school education.
“I just kept pushing myself and knew I could do it,” said Karen, 19, who was formally presented her diploma at BA Monday.
Karen attended Faribault High School her freshman and sophomore years. During her junior year at FHS, attendance became a huge challenge for Karen. While academic performance wasn’t an issue for her, her grades suffered because she missed so much school. Eventually, she stopped going altogether.
Karen said it’s hard to remember much apart from staying in bed a lot. Her relationship with her parents suffered, and she dealt with internal problems she couldn’t find the words to explain.
“All I wanted to do was sleep,” said Karen.
She didn’t know it at the time, but her declined motivation stemmed largely from mental health-related struggles, not laziness. A mental health professional told Karen many of her symptoms pointed to seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that corresponds to the changes of seasons.
Accepting help pointed Karen in a new direction. Something eventually snapped, and she realized that she no longer wanted to let life pass her by. Instead, she took a leap and enrolled at BA, where she would repeat her junior year. She was so determined to finish high school she even paid for half her tuition herself.
Based on her observations, Karen said many teens who drop out of school don’t want to return out of fear of facing their classmates. Karen made up her mind that it didn’t matter what others thought of her decision.
Transferring to a new school was scary for Karen, who didn’t know anyone at the parochial school. But she made two important connections who she credits with her success. For the first two years of Karen’s time at BA, School Counselor Laura Carlson provided emotional support, while Melinda O’Connor, then the academic dean, held Karen accountable for going to class.
As a team, O’Connor and Carlson inspired Karen with a strong level of support and confidence in her ability to succeed.
“If they believed in me, how could I not believe in myself?” said Karen.
The teachers at BA, who knew what Karen had been through, made her feel accepted and not judged.
“Teachers can be very understanding in a situation, and our teachers [at BA] go above and beyond to help a student,” said O’Connor.
Carlson added that while BA teachers met Karen where she was at, they didn’t lower their high standards or allow her to take shortcuts.
In Karen’s situation, a shortcut wasn’t possible. Although she walked with her classmates during BA’s 2018 graduation commencement, she still needed one more credit to officially graduate. This past academic year, Karen earned her English credit at the Faribault Area Learning Center. Both Carlson and O’Connor left BA in 2018, but remained in close contact with Karen as she completed her final year of high school.
“I am so incredibly proud of the hard work she’s done,” said Carlson. “It would have been so easy to give up.”
Now that she’s a high school graduate, Karen plans to attend South Central College in Faribault in the fall to major in nursing. College was a big focus for Karen when she was an AVID student at FHS, but she didn’t expect to actually meet her goal. With the new confidence she’s developed, she wants to ultimately become a pediatrician.
Karen’s parents, Inocente and Gloria Cruz, are both happy for their oldest daughter and proud of her accomplishment. Gloria said, via a translator, that she’ll be even happier when Karen receives her college degree. On her father’s side of the family, Karen will be the first to attend college.
Leslie, Karen’s younger sister and a rising senior at ALC, said through tears that she’s proud of her sister and looks to her as a role model.
“I wouldn’t be able to be me without her,” said Leslie. “She has taught me a lot with school and [also] individually and mentally.”
Karen hopes her story inspires other teens and twentysomethings who have dropped out of school to keep going with their education. She encourages others like herself to “try it out” and consider their futures.
“You’re the one doing it for your own benefit and your own life,” said Karen. “You just have to believe in yourself. You can have supportive friends and family, but at the end of the day, you have to do it for yourself.”
Last year, the little office in Owatonna’s West Hills that houses the community’s mentorship program spent its summer celebrating.
The Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southern Minnesota reached an impressive milestone when the national organization, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, recognized the non-profit as the 2017 Small-Mid Agency of the Year. The accomplishment was something that BBBS of Southern Minnesota Executive Director Michelle Redman had been striving to achieve for years, and just a couple weeks ago the agency proved that it wasn’t just a stroke of luck.
On June 27, BBBS of Southern Minnesota was recognized for the second consecutive year as the 2018 Small-Mid Agency of the Year. The local organization was selected based on growth in the number of children served, quality and length of mentoring matches, and increased revenues, which ensures the agency can continue to grow and serve more children.
“In all 50 states, local Big Brothers Big Sisters agencies are strengthening their communities through mentorship, but these agencies have truly excelled in providing quality services and growing their reach,” said Pam Iorio, president and CEO of BBBS of America. “These agencies are helping thousands of children reach their full potential.”
In 2018, BBBS of Southern Minnesota served 708 children in the four-county service area of Steele, Rice, Dodge, and Waseca counties — crushing its 2017 number of 594 and surpassing its original goal for the year of 625 children served.
“We are honored and truly humbled to accept this award for the second year in a row,” Redman said. “This award is not only a testament to the wonderful work of our volunteers and staff, but also to the outstanding communities we serve.”
BBBS creates and supports one-to-one mentoring relationships that ignite the power and promise of area youth. Their approach is evidence-based and designed to create positive youth outcomes including educational success, avoidance of risky behaviors, higher aspirations, greater confidence, and improved relationships. The BBBS of Southern Minnesota agency has been serving the area for the last 47 years.
Currently, 200 children are on the BBBS of Southern Minnesota waiting list, anxiously anticipating a connection with a positive role model in their life. The local agency makes thoughtful and intentional matches and provides support throughout the duration of the match. In addition to making the match, BBBS of Southern Minnesota organizes special activities for Littles and their Bigs each month, ranging from sporting events to picnics and everything in between.
“What Big Brothers Big Sisters does is urgent and important,” Redman said. “Together, we are all defenders of potential.”
Bridgewater Township is alleging that the companies it hired to rerouted Spring Creek and conduct other flood prevention work destroyed existing wetlands and cost the township tens of thousands of dollars.
A lawsuit, filed last week in Rice County court, names Adam Parker of Mariner Professional Services, WSB & Associates and Alliant Engineering as defendants and is in connection with the Central Pond project, at the intersection of County Road 22 and Hwy. 246. The pond was built to manage flood water, rerouting Spring Creek in the process.
The project was partially funded through the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Flood Assistance Program, though the township paid approximately $120,000.
Bridgewater retained the services of WSB for principal field work. The company then assigned the project to Parker, who was a company employee from March 2014 until July 2015. The lawsuit states Parker was also employed by Alliant Engineering, a company that provided engineering services to the township.
“Upon information and belief, defendants failed to follow the industry-recognized steps for delineating whether wetlands existed within the proposed area for the Central Pond project,” the township stated in the lawsuit.
Bridgewater is seeking in excess of $50,000 to remedy alleged defects and negligent construction processes WSB undertook, as well as defending itself against engineering fees to negotiate with government entities, to redesign Spring Creek, re-engineer the site, purchase additional acres due to inadvertent destruction of the wetlands and attorney fees.
Bridgewater Township Supervisor Glen Castore said because required permits were not applied for with the Army Corps of Engineering and Rice County Soil and Water Conservation District, the township had to purchase $56,000 for two wetland credits to make up for the wetland destructed in the project. If a wetland is used in a public project, government entities must purchase at least twice as much wetland space. Castore said rerouting Spring Creek has been beneficial for the township and took place after residents of Far-Gaze Meadows, a residential development in southeast Northfield, experienced flooding issues.
According to the lawsuit, if WSB had followed the industry-recognized protocol, the company would have found the area was a wetland.
In a response filing, WSB denied breaching the contract and said it “performed its services in a manner consistent with the required standard of care but denies that the standard of care is as set forth.”
The company stated it was not hired to provide all engineering services for the project nor was responsible for advising the township on wetland delineation requirements, compliance with the Minnesota Wetland Conservation Act or for construction requirements or pre-conditions. WSB also denied failing to follow industry-recognized steps for delineating whether a wetland existed on the site.
The project began in late 2015 when the township purchased 11½ acres of property and ended in spring 2017. As part of the $1.2 million project, mainly funded by the Department of Natural Resources, approximately 90,000 cubic yards of soil was removed. A small pond was also constructed near Bridgewater Heights to contain overflow from the holding pond. Castore estimated that has reduced storm water flow into the city of Northfield by about 30 percent.
Lawyers are expected to meet July 22 to schedule a mediation session.
“It is a justified lawsuit, and we just go through the process here and see what happens,” Castore said.