Haylee Sheffler is resilience personified.
The Rocky Mountain High School senior and peer counselor is a person who students can turn to for advice, empathy and understanding without fear of judgement. When they do reach out to her, Haylee’s message is often a simple one: You are not alone.
It’s not something she takes lightly. Her passion for peer counseling is rooted in her own experiences enduring a difficult childhood and years spent in the foster care system. This brilliant young woman turned those painful memories into an opportunity to reach out to other students who might be feeling hopeless and alone.
“I want to be a helping hand to the kids that are just like me and feeling down about themselves,” she said. “I want to show the kids that they have someone. I’m here for them, and I always will be there for them no matter what.”
The deep sense of community and belonging that Haylee found at Rocky started with her other life’s passion – music. For as long as she can remember, Haylee has been enamored with music and found comfort and joy in composing songs to sing while she plays her guitar. For Haylee, music has served as a way to express herself and connect with others, a feeling that only grew at Rocky, where she found that other students not only shared her passion, but were eager to bond over it, too.
“I stepped into the choir room my freshman year, and everyone just smiled at me,” she said. “I felt so accepted in that environment, and I knew that I was accepted and loved.”
As Haylee’s graduation nears, she knows she’ll be saying goodbye to her Rocky community – at least for a little while. But that doesn’t mean she plans on leaving forever. In fact, she dreams of one day returning to the school to serve as a school counselor. Next year she’s heading to the University of Arizona to study Psychology and English as a next step journey.
“What’s driven me to graduation is my on hope for the this future and being someone who can help other kids, being someone who can reach out to kids who are in similar situations to what I was in growing up, being there for kids who are alone,” she said. “Definitely what’s driven me is the hope that I can do something to impact those kids who are struggling like I was.”
Luke Rankin feels most at home at home on the water.
An avid outdoorsman, the Centennial High School graduate keeps a go-bag full of fly-fishing gear in the corner of his room, ready to grab and throw in his pickup truck when he gets the spontaneous urge to drive up Poudre Canyon and find the perfect fishing spot.
For Luke, being outdoors offers the peace and simplicity he’s spent much of his life searching for.
“I really love the outdoors because you get to feel primitive, in a sense,” he said. “Everything is so complicated, it seems, when you’re on a city street. You’ve got to pay attention to everything. When I’m outside hiking, I’ve only got to look at one foot in front of the other.”
Since coming to Centennial High School, Luke’s perspective on life and success has shifted dramatically. Before he came to the school, he struggled with feelings of hopelessness. It was hard for him to find the motivation he needed to participate in class and school activities.
When he discovered Centennial, though, it was like a switch was flipped.
“Within the first few days of Discovery, I got this feeling of ‘oh, I can live again,’” he said, referencing Centennial’s Discovery program – an intensive six-week class that all students must pass. “I was excited to get up in the morning.”
Luke describes himself as a positive person, and that optimism is apparent when he walks through the halls of Centennial High School greeting his friends and teachers with hugs and high-fives. Long gone are the days of walking through his school halls feeling lost and alone. Now, he envisions a bright future.
“For the majority of my life, I felt like I was standing out on the water watching my fly bob up and down on the current,” he said. “When I came to Centennial, it was like a fish took that hook, and now I’m along for the ride.”
Don’t tell Maddy Chong the odds are against her.
The Fossil Ridge High School senior and environmentalist can rattle off a laundry list of unnerving statistics about carbon emissions, plastic waste polluting the world’s oceans, and animals on the endangered species list. But instead of choosing cynicism in the face of these monumental challenges, Maddy decided to change the world.
“I like to think I’m really optimistic, especially pertaining to environmental sustainability,” she said. “It’s best to look on the bright side.”
For Maddy, that means finding ways – big and small – that she can affect change. As the co-president of the Fossil Ridge Energy Saving High (FRESH) Club, she has made her school more environmentally sustainable. She helped organize the club’s big end-of-year environmental summit, and she’s worked to educate her peers on how to reduce their environmental footprint.
When she goes off to college next year, she plans to study molecular biology or biomedical engineering. She dreams of using this education to create a bacterium that either consumes plastic or breaks it down in such a way that it becomes a biodegradable material.
“As a human race, we came and made our mark, both positive and negative, on the world,” she said. “We’ve produced a lot of byproducts and trash that ended up harming a lot of other animals in the process. As a person, I don’t think it’s fair to make a mess and not clean it up.”
For Maddy, high school has offered competing lessons. She’s discovered her passion for environmentalism, academic rigor, socializing and dreaming big. But she also learned that she needed to prioritize and avoid stretching herself too thin.
“I love doing everything,” she said. “I love to dance. I love to do math and biology. I love organizing and planning. … I love taking the hard classes and going to basketball games. The hardest thing I’ve learned since coming to Fossil is it’s really important to moderate and figure out what’s going to work. It’s not possible to do every single thing.”
Hammocking and hiking are a natural way for Maddy to unwind from her many school and extracurricular activities. It gives her time to explore the natural world she spends so much energy working to protect.
“It’s so cool that there are so many things that occur naturally, that are so beautiful,” she said on a cold February morning. “Like the frost on the trees this morning was so cool. We have so many opportunities to enjoy nature.”
Poudre Community Academy senior Fabi Bojorquez can hardly wait to hear his name called at Poudre Community’s graduation ceremony later this month.
Walking across that stage and accepting a diploma is a huge milestone for any student. But for Fabi, it’s even bigger. It’s a hard-fought accomplishment that speaks to his dedication to education, and the courage it took for him to return to school after dropping out.
“I’m most looking forward to finally hearing my name called, finally getting my diploma, finally seeing my family’s reactions,” he said. “You know, they’ll think ‘he finally did it. He said before he was going to go back and now it’s official.’”
Fabi’s road to graduation wasn’t easy. He struggled with bullying in middle school, and when he got to his freshman year, he found himself missing days of class. Days turned into weeks, which turned into months. Eventually, he stopped going altogether.
But when he went to support his friends at their graduation ceremony in 2017, he decided he was done missing out.
“I looked at my mom and told her ‘I need to be up there,’” he said. “This is what I need to do for myself.”
So, Fabi enrolled at PCA and worked tirelessly to catch up. He entered the school with 47 credit hours completed. By the end of his first year at PCA, he had made up 100.
At PCA he has found his passion for learning, breakdancing and entertaining new people with his comedy. His newfound sense of self confidence has helped him foster deep friendships and work toward his dreams.
“The big accomplishment here is meeting all these fantastic people,” he said about his school. “They don’t judge. It’s super outgoing.”
Polaris senior Ian Seavey is all kinds of busy.
When he’s not in the middle of an emergency medical call during his Poudre Valley Hospital internship, he’s probably hard at work at his after-school job, finishing up a school project or planning his future medical career.
On the rare occasions he’s lucky enough to catch some down time, you might find him playing Dungeons and Dragons with his close friends to unwind. During his time at Polaris, Ian has been able to explore his passions and flourish academically – he’s taken college courses, worked toward an EMT certification, and earned his Eagle Scout badge – but he’s also been able to find a sense of community.
“The best thing I could say to my younger self is … see your community as people you can go to, rely on and trust,” he said.
As he heads toward to graduation, Ian is looking forward to the exciting opportunities that are ahead of him.
Ian discovered his passion for medicine through his course work at Polaris Expeditionary Learning School and Front Range Community College. His clinical internship at PVH gave him the chance to put that knowledge to work in real-world situations as an emergency medical technician.
“I love the excitement of going on a call or being able to fix somebody and help them, help save their life,” he said. “It’s very exciting.”
Next year, the Eagle Scout plans to continue pursuing his passion and work toward becoming a registered nurse.
“It’s a jumping off point for the real world,” he said. “I’m nervous, but also excited.”
Courtney Norris has a crystal-clear vision for her future. When you ask her what her plans are, she answers quickly and confidently.
“I want to be a pediatric surgeon,” the graduating PSD Global Academy senior said. “My stepdad had a son who had cerebral palsy, and I was inspired to pursue a medical career to help kids like him.”
To those around Courtney, her big ambitions are hardly surprising. She’s a gifted student who has pushed herself academically throughout her time in high school. In many ways, PSD Global Academy has become a home away from home for Courtney. Whether she’s taking photos, editing a yearbook layout or organizing a student group, she is a leader at her school and at home, where she’s a role model for her young niece.
“She’s been the center of all of our worlds for the past few years,” Courtney said. “It’s been amazing to watch her grow up knowing I contributed to this.”
Her focus on her family was deepened her freshman year when a series of events beyond her control left her and her family homeless for several months.
“It was really hard for me because I had to be there for my family,” she said. “I had to focus on things other than school, even though that’s always been my strength.”
During that difficult time, Courtney said her school community rallied around her. Teachers helped by offering food, emotional support and anything else they could to be there for their student. That connection to the PSD Global Academy community has stayed with Courtney throughout her high school career.
She knows that leaving will be bittersweet.
“I know that it’s going to be a huge shift,” she said. “Everything is going to change, but at the same time, I’m super excited because I’m ready to become this person I know I can be.”
Whether she’s learning about history, math or language arts, Iitay Bugarin is always hungry for more knowledge.
“The more I learn, the more I’m able to relate to other people,” she said. “It makes me really happy.”
In her four years at Fort Collins High School, Iitay has excelled in the school’s AVID program and in honors and advanced placement classes. Next year, she will become the first member of her family to attend college, where she plans to pursue her dream of becoming an architect. Her senior year, she excelled in advanced placement calculus and college literature.
But despite being a gifted and dedicated student, Iitay has not always felt like she belonged in challenging courses alongside other advanced students.
“There were so many moments in my life when I felt like I wasn’t worthy enough to be in school, or I wasn’t powerful enough,” she said, remembering the first time she walked into an advanced placement class and realized she didn’t know a single person in the room. “I felt really out of place. When you’re in a situation like that, you feel like you’re a fish out of water. I felt like I had to push through it.”
And that’s exactly what she did.
Motivated by her parents, who left everything behind to move to the U.S. and build a new future for their family, Iitay flourished academically and became a leader at her school. She has served as both an AVID Ambassador and instructor.
Somehow, even in the midst of her heavy course load and extracurricular activities, Iitay found time to return to her Fort Collins elementary school to mentor two young girls. She helps them with their work, talks to them about their days, and gives them a look into a bright future that could be theirs.
“Hopefully they see me and think ‘wow, she’s like me,’” Iitay said. “(I hope they think) ‘she’s a woman, she’s a woman of color, and she’s being successful in high school, and she’s going to be successful in her life.’”
When you first meet JJ Gallegos, you might mistake the spunky senior for a shy, quiet kid.
But the truth is, he was born to be in the spotlight. When he walks through the halls of Poudre High School, his peers return his beaming smile and greet him with high fives and pats on the back. This easy star quality has never been more apparent than on a snowy night this February as he stood in front hundreds of cheering fans and stared down his opponent from across the wrestling mat.
“I thought ‘oh my gosh, here we are,’” Integrated Learning Services Educator Lisa Owsley said, as she sat next to JJ, recalling the Colorado State Wrestling Tournament. “It’s a big deal. … I kept saying ‘JJ, are you nervous?’ I just wondered how he was going to do with the crowds, but he said ‘no, I’m happy.’”
“Is that how you felt?” she asked, turning to JJ.
“Yes,” he answered.
Throughout his high school career, JJ has participated in Unified Sports – athletics teams on which people with and without disabilities can compete side by side. He’s payed basketball, flag football and soccer. Then, he found wrestling, and entered a new phase of his athletic career.
Wrestling was JJ’s first non-Special Olympics sport. Once he made it through tryouts, he started working single-mindedly toward his new goal: Getting a match at State. That meant attending enough practices and competing in enough matches to be eligible.
“It wasn’t just a gimme,” Owsley said. “It wasn’t just ‘oh, look at JJ, let’s give him a match.’ It was ‘look at what JJ has done and can do. He genuinely deserves this match. He earned it.’”
At the state tournament, JJ wrestled for three full periods – it was the first time he’d ever had a match that lasted that long – which meant he had to rely on the hard work and conditioning he’d been putting in during practices. He won by using his all-time favorite wrestling move: The double leg takedown.
Wrestling coach Barret Golyer rushed to the mat when JJ was declared the winner. JJ pumped his fist in the air as he and his coach celebrated his momentous victory.
The crowd erupted.