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Class of 2008

The strength to succeed: Three graduates' stories

A devotion to growing things and agricultural research will lead 17-year-old Sara Hutchinson to Hillsborough Community College Plant City this fall.

A devotion to growing things and agricultural research will lead 17-year-old Sara Hutchinson to Hillsborough Community College Plant City this fall.

Chance was sinking fast until family support and the prospect of a hockey career spurred him to succeed. Sara could be on the brink of a major breakthrough for the farming industry — even if she did get rejected by the University of Florida. And Valerie, well, she's pretty smart, but life at home is literally a test of a teenager's survival.
They aren't the valedictorians, but they're not the hopeless statistics either. As Hillsborough's 2008 graduates prepare for the world beyond high school, we look at the stories of three everyday students who don't fall on either end of the academic extreme. And yet they are already learning what it means to overcome life's obstacles.

Here are their stories.

Teen put down roots in ag research

LITHIA — She hoped to study agriculture at the University of Florida, but administrators saw her C+ average and said no thanks.

Sara Hutchinson isn't dismayed, though.

The 17-year-old has something going for her that may trump grades in the long run — actual achievement.

The Newsome High School senior is one of five state finalists for the FFA's Agriscience Student of the Year.

Her project: turning cow manure into cash.

She grew up in Balm, the daughter of a parks worker, and has been steeped in activities for FFA, formerly known as Future Farmers of America, for as long as she can remember.

She's bought six steers and six pigs with state loans, raised them to be prize winners and paid her debts with the profits.

"Since the ninth grade I've grabbed hold of any contest I could get my hands on," Sara said.

She loves working with animals and has decided to attend Hillsborough Community College in the fall.

Someday, she wants to become an agricultural law enforcement officer, policing animal abuse and investigating crimes from theft to bioterrorism.

Sara has taken nearly every course offered in a joint agriculture curriculum shared by Newsome and Riverview high schools.

She also works part time at the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Science campus in Balm. Her schedule gets her out of bed by 6 a.m.

She has won a slew of agriculture awards, including a recent showmanship prize with a steer named Gump, who, before the contest, had only obeyed her when it suited him.

"He didn't like me," she said.

She also earned second place in a recent FFA contest for her sugar cookie fruit tarts recipe.

For fun, she chats with friends on MySpace and listens to country singer George Jones.

"Sara is a very bright girl," said Amy Shober, a soil scientist at IFAS who advises her.

If she has an Achilles' heel, it's math. Sara said the subject actually scares her. "I'm not good with numbers," she said.

Still, through her job at IFAS and academic work, Sara got to know UF researchers who were studying "cowpeat." The euphemism refers to cow manure that has been dried and used to nurture potted houseplants. Though that petunia plant you bought at Wal-Mart may seem to grow in black dirt, it probably didn't originally, UF scientist Geoff Denny said.

Growers use peat moss, derived from partially decayed wetlands vegetation, or peat. Most peat in Florida comes from swamps in Canada because state environmental regulations make it tough to get peat from the bogs here.

But peat takes years to regenerate and is not considered a renewable resource.

Sara's team, led by two UF environmentalists and two horticulturists, is among researchers who question whether peat is necessary for potting soil at all.

If farmers could use cow manure instead, the industry could avoid the costly expense of shipping peat from Canada. It would also help dairy farmers, who could sell manure instead of paying to haul it away.

The critical question is complex: As plants absorb nutrients from cowpeat through their roots, would the soil levels hold up as well as Canadian peat?

Sara, who had listened to the researchers' discussions, pitched an idea: Why not let her conduct an experiment, comparing soil absorption levels? She could use the data for her FFA project.

So far, Sara has found cowpeat the equal of Canadian peat in every way.

"It was really impressive that someone at the age of 17 would approach us and say she was interested in doing research," Shober said.

Riverview High teacher Karen Hamilton, who is also advising Sara, often found that she was the one asking questions during Sara's project.

"Going over the information with her, there are times I have to ask, 'What did that mean?' " Hamilton said. "Even with a college degree in agriculture, I don't have a clue about some of the things she's talking about."

In the coming months, Sara will find out if her experiment will lead to yet another prize. The winner of the FFA's state contest in Orlando in June gets $750 and advances to the national competition for Agriscience Student of the Year, scheduled for Indianapolis in October. Judges weigh neatness and accuracy, as well as practicality, Hamilton said.

"Is it information the industry could actually use?" Hamilton said. "And for her, I think that's going to fit right in."

In hot pursuit of a hockey career

TAMPA PALMS — Chance Letson met the Philadelphia Junior Flyers last fall. The junior league hockey team had a single empty spot on its roster, so he flew to Philly, where coaches held a tryout just for him.

He impressed them, and they offered him a spot. He could play hockey for the team — just what the Freedom High School senior had hoped for.

But, in the end, he turned it down.

Freedom's ice hockey season hadn't ended. And he couldn't walk away from his teammates.

"He's got a lot of loyalty toward that team," said his dad, Patrick Letson.

Eighteen-year-old Chance was expected to graduate Wednesday from Freedom, after playing center for the Patriots, who ended the season as champions.

"I love to play hockey," Chance said. "That's my life."

But his high school years started off rocky.

His relationship with his mother struggled; the two didn't get along. And the rough home life took a toll on him at school. On the ice, his game needed some work. In the classroom, his grades slipped and he nearly flunked a few classes.

At the end of his sophomore year, he moved in with his dad and his stepmom.

"A couple of years ago, we didn't think he'd graduate," his father said.

Chance adjusted to living in a new home and mapped out a plan for success: playing junior hockey, then playing for a college team and, ultimately, becoming a professional hockey player.

Linda Letson was surprised by how quickly her stepson took charge, improving his grades and his game.

"Coming from problems, you don't expect a good person," she said. "You expect rebellion."

Instead, Chance worked harder in school and signed up to play for multiple hockey teams. He began to make responsible choices.

"He doesn't drink, he doesn't smoke, he doesn't party," she said.

He does, however, play a heck of a lot of hockey.

"Sometimes, I'd be traveling, on the way to hockey games and I'd be like, 'Man, I really miss my friends,' " Chance said. "But you have to give up things to have a better life, if you want to pursue that."

So far, his pursuit has meant giving up Friday nights and weekends. It has meant taking care of his health and spending lots of time at the gym.

"You have to do a lot of weight lifting, you have to run a lot, ride a bike," he said. "You have to be fast on the ice."

Mike Grande, assistant coach of Freedom's ice hockey team, says a good athlete is physically strong. "But a great athlete is physically and mentally strong."

Chance, Grande says, is a great athlete.

Playing for multiple travel teams — whose seasons usually overlapped — gave Chance an edge on the ice.

"I think that helps any hockey player," Grande said. "You can adapt to any coaching style, you can adapt to any team."

The flexibility paid off when Chance tried out for the Philadelphia team. Even though he turned down the offer, playing junior hockey is still his next step. This month, he tried out for the Tampa Bay Bolts, a junior league team in Ellenton. He'll head to Ellenton for a second round of tryouts next month.

His parents think he has a good shot at making the team.

"I just have to work hard," Chance says.

His parents are proud.

Seems like yesterday, he was a freshman, his father said.

"He (had) the drive to graduate; he has the drive to play hockey," Linda Letson said.

"He's come a long way. … He's turned into a man."

She learned to fend for herself

OLD SEMINOLE HEIGHTS — No one knew about the note on the kitchen whiteboard: Valerie, I got arrested. Take care of yourself. I'll try to get home as soon as I can.

It was Oct. 15, 2007. Valerie Perez had turned 18 a month and a day earlier.

Her mother had been arrested — again. Valerie put her homework aside and organized her thoughts. She would need a job, food stamps, money to pay the light bill.

This time, she figured, she could make it, on her own.

Things were always so much simpler for her in the International Baccalaureate program at Hillsborough High School.

She graduates this week, but just a handful of the 2,083 students there know how she has managed the past few years. Life has always seemed so much simpler for them.

"I don't talk about it. They wouldn't understand," she said. They don't know about nights she studied by candlelight when the power was cut. The three months she and her mom lived in a rented maroon Dodge Stratus when she was in ninth grade.

"I just want to be my age," she said.

She never invites friends over. Her home is too different. It always has been.

To save money, she unplugs the TV and microwave when she's not using them and keeps her lights off most of the time.

She budgets her $169 in food stamps each month on white rice and chicken or pork. She cooks for herself. In January, she got a job at Bath & Body Works, earning about $50 a week. She got bus passes with help from the district's Homeless Education and Literacy Project.

She caught the school bus at 6 a.m. and ate free lunches.

Her teachers rallied her with support. "We believed in Valerie," said assistant principal Donna Scheirer. "She didn't get very many breaks for a kid. I give her a lot of credit for sticking with it in the face of adversity. How many kids do you meet like that?"

Now that she has graduated, she needs a second job to turn her phone back on.

She has filled out applications but hasn't heard back from employers — maybe because her phone got disconnected.

She lived on her own until February, when her 23-year-old sister, Pamela Perez, knocked on the door in the middle of the night with her children and no where to go. Valerie took them in.

Now, she is charged with caring for her nephew and nieces in the apartment, while her sister works. Michael Gonzalez, 3, is splashing water from the tub.

"Mikito! Para de tirar el agua!"

He stops.

"I have always been the one to do the work," she said. "I'm a nerd."

Valerie was at Orange Grove Middle School when her mother became mentally ill, she said. The mother had panic attacks and got fired from her job. Valerie hid in her room with music from heavy metal bands Linkin Park, Slipknot and Korn. She wrote poetry that she shows no one. She started taking pictures of her surroundings. She started to think college was her way out. She made straight A's through middle school. In high school, IB seemed like the best route.

Halfway into her freshman year, they lost their apartment. Through the winter, they were homeless, parking in shopping center lots overnight, begging shelter on the coldest nights.

They got public housing in South Tampa and things looked up, even when they went without electricity three weeks.

Sometimes, Valerie had to study late. "Go to sleep," her mother told her. "Rest your brain," she'd say. "She tried," Valerie said. "I can't blame her for trying."

The day of Valerie's induction into IB, her mother got arrested for aggravated stalking.

Then 16, Valerie went to live with her father in Texas. She got into an IB program there but missed Tampa.

At the end of the school year — her mother freed — Valerie moved back to Tampa and held on for her 18th birthday. As an adult, she could apply for food stamps. She could stay in the rent-free housing.

The day she came home to the note on the whiteboard, she was ready. Her mother spent 50 days in jail for violating probation.

Life was foreboding. "You know something bad is going to happen. You're expecting it. Something is going to happen."

Another arrest came Jan. 8 for another probation violation. "I was so mad," Valerie said. When her mother was picked up, she was watching Valerie's nephew, Michael, who was taken into state care. It was up to Valerie to get him out.

Mom is still in jail, awaiting sentencing. She declined to be interviewed for this story. In August, Valerie will go to the University of Central Florida on scholarships for a photography degree. She can't wait to leave.

"I'd like to be my own person and venture out," she said. "Keep your drama over in Tampa."

She dreams of better things. Stability. Security.

She is done ferrying cans of beans and corn on the school bus from a food pantry.

She used to tell classmates she was collecting.

Now she doesn't care if they know.

The strength to succeed: Three graduates' stories 05/29/08 [Last modified: Thursday, May 29, 2008 5:58pm]
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