To graduate with her Springstead High class she had to fight

Mariesol Cruz, 18, had to take 11 class as a senior to catch up with her studies and graduate.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Mariesol Cruz, 18, had to take 11 class as a senior to catch up with her studies and graduate.

SPRING HILL — One fall day six years ago, social workers came and took Mariesol Cruz and her and two older sisters away.

Her mom wasn't providing for them like a mother should, they told Mariesol, who was 12 at the time.

Over the next four years, Mariesol bounced from foster home to foster home. She skipped school, turned to drugs and alcohol, and spent time in a residential treatment center. She struggled with an eating disorder.

She felt powerless.

"I lost my sense of self," she recalls.

Two years ago, Mariesol arrived at Springstead High School. She was far behind her peers, so last year her guidance counselor recommended that she take an extra year to graduate. Otherwise, her senior-year academic schedule would be brutal.

Maybe so, but tackling the challenge was a way she could control her fate.

"I wanted to graduate with my class," said Mariesol, now 18.

Tonight, she will walk across the stage with the Class of 2009.

• • •

Gloria and Jerry Lawson of Weeki Wachee were looking to adopt a teenage boy when a case manager approached them about a 12-year-old girl.

The girl was living at Hope Youth Ranch, a residential therapeutic program for teens in Hudson. She had limited social skills. She once cursed at a judge. The caseworker doubted the couple could get the girl to attend school.

"I think she was just really angry because she had no control over what happened to her on a daily basis," Gloria Lawson said.

• • •

A native of Norwich, N.Y., Cruz moved with her mother and sisters to New Port Richey about 11 years ago.

Her mother worked long hours at restaurants to pay the bills.

Cruz admits: "I didn't like going to school."

So she didn't. Her truancy was among the reasons the state came looking for her.

Her mother, Julie King, still lives in New Port Richey but could not be reached by the Times.

Cruz estimates she spent time in some two dozen foster homes, not including places where she just slept for a night or two.

"You never got to get close to anybody," she said. "You could never trust anybody or talk to anybody."

That changed in 2007 when she came to live with the Lawsons. The couple never officially adopted her because her mother's rights were never terminated, but she still became part of the family.

"They would help me in any way they could," she said. "They were like my motivators."

The Lawsons own a plumbing business, but Gloria founded a nonprofit group, Fostering Hope Florida, which raises money and awareness for foster families.

The Lawsons struggled to patch together Cruz's school history. Her grade-point average was lackluster, and she was a full semester behind.

"When she came to us, Mariesol was just kind of a poor little lost soul," said Randal Roberts, her guidance counselor. "She didn't know how to play the game of school, and that's one of the things she did learn to do."

Gloria Lawson said Cruz was ready to change.

"We just gave her a steady platform, and she did all the fighting for herself."

• • •

To graduate today, Cruz had to take 11 classes as a senior.

She took eight classes at Springstead. Then she'd go home and sit in front of the computer for online English, geometry and math courses. That made it tough to find time for homework.

"There were plenty of times I just wanted to give up and thought it was too hard to even do," she said.

Her boyfriend, who attended Central High but wound up getting a GED, supported and motivated her, she said.

She found time to enjoy her high school experience. She got a car. She went to prom in a dream dress from Patricia's Boutique. She joined a church youth group.

"Today, I'm living a life that other teenagers take for granted," she wrote in an essay about her experiences.

In May, Cruz stood in front of a crowd at the Elks Club west of Brooksville and accepted the award for Springstead's "Turnaround Student of the Year.

"I just want to thank everybody who believed in me," she told the audience.

• • •

Cruz said she might become a massage therapist, a field that has always peaked her interest.

But first, she dons cap and gown tonight for graduation at Springstead's football stadium. She says she is, as far as she knows, the only person in her family to earn a high school degree.

She has re-established a relationship with her mother, who will attend the ceremony.

"I don't want to cry," she said, "but I'm probably going to be crying the whole way through."

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

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CLASS OF 2009

Frank W. Springstead High School

Valedictorian,
Jem M. Lugo

Parents: Louis and Cathy Lugo

GPA: 4.52

College: Harvard University

Field of study: Neurogenetics

Salutatorian,
Katherine E. McAlpine

Parents: David and Janie McAlpine

GPA: 4.50

College: New College

Field of study: Pre-law

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IF YOU GO

Commencement

Springstead High School will have its commencement ceremony at 7:30 tonight at the school, 3300 Mariner Blvd., Spring Hill.

To graduate with her Springstead High class she had to fight 06/03/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 6, 2009 7:18am]

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