Living on their own, two Fayette County high school seniors — one from Guatemala and one a former Kentucky foster child — held down jobs and got themselves off to school each day so they could graduate.
Both received help from school staff who support students with mental health issues or counseling needs. Graduation took place May 30 and May 31 in Lexington’s Rupp Arena.
Elder “Marcelo” Godoy Cordero, 19, came alone to the United States from Guatemala, enrolling at Paul Laurence Dunbar in the 2021-22 school year.
“I came to the United States because of the too few opportunities in my country of Guatemala,” Marcelo said.
In the United States, he had opportunities. He could attend school and earn a better living.
“I am the youngest in my family, and my mom did not want me to leave my home; I also did not want to leave my family behind, but the necessity was too great,” Marcelo said.
His father died several years ago.
In Lexington, he stayed with a cousin who had come to the U.S. years before. The two had “never really met” but she kindly allowed Marcelo to live with her for about one year, he said.
After that, Marcelo wanted to stay in the Dunbar attendance zone and could only find a two bedroom apartment.
His mental health specialist at Dunbar, Karen Callahan, said although the rent was high, he was able to save up money to make it work.
“He has consistently worked full-time and maintained his grades,” — a 3.3 cumulative grade point average, she said.
Callahan met Marcelo last school year in a student group she formed. That’s when Marcelo shared with her his “remarkable story.”
Along with other staff, she provided him with furniture, clothing, shoes, household items and food to alleviate the burden of working and attending school full-time at such a young age.
Marcelo got a job at a Mexican restaurant and worked his way up from dishwasher to server. He said he only has one afternoon off each week.
“I can do difficult things because I work hard,” he said. “I’ve worked since I was 9, and hard work is not a strange concept for me. I was able to show myself that my hard work pays off, and it showed by being able to buy myself a car, pay my car insurance, rent, bills, food, clothing and shoes.”
“Marcelo is the American dream, and I am so proud to know him,” Callahan said.
Marcelo still keeps in touch with his mother and family in Guatemala, but poor cell phone service in their part of the country can make communication difficult, he said.
Marcelo didn’t want to initially go to graduation ceremonies because nobody was going to be there to see him, Callahan said.
“But I told him that I would be there cheering him on. We are going to take pictures…so that his mom can see the pictures of him graduating. I am very excited to see him graduate,” she said.
Marcelo said he hasn’t decided whether to go to college or join the military but he has been accepted to Bluegrass Community and Technical College.
“I have learned that I don’t have any obstacles I can’t overcome. I can do anything I set my mind to,” he said.
Keep coming back
Jade Bruce, 19, lives on her own near Henry Clay High School where she was a senior.
As a child, she lived in foster homes after her mother died.
At 18 she moved out on her own, got a job, enrolled at Henry Clay and was determined to be self-sufficient, said guidance specialist Jennifer Grigsby.
Jade has had many battles over the past year with depression, anxiety and attendance, said Grigsby.
“She worries about her money, her food, her utilities,” Grigsby said. “She has a lot of stress. She also faced the challenge of meeting her high school requirements to graduate because she has moved around so much and that put her behind in her courses.”
She stayed on track with the daily encouragement of her friend group, her credit recovery teachers and weekly counseling. She kept coming back, said Grigsby.
“She got herself up each day, walked over and completed her tasks as assigned. She was able to complete all in person and credit recovery courses needed to graduate with the class of 2023.
“In addition, Jade is taking care of her financial responsibilities, counseling needs and personal care. She works as a babysitter and is in a program that helps foster children as they transition to adulthood. She is truly a determined, artistic and caring young woman,” said Grigsby.
Jade is planning on going to BCTC and wants to be an art therapist. Jade said she gets encouragement from Grigsby.
“I go to her to rant and I really do love that,” said Jade.
Jade acknowledges that her life is still difficult.
“I go to school and I see a bunch of people who talk about how they love their family, they love their moms. I don’t … have a parent to come home to,” said Jade. “I honestly thought my mom would still be here and she would wake me up and tell me to go to school. And it’s just hard sometimes.”