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Top Jones grads beat grind

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by Leslie Postal
Orlando Sentinel

Elease Samms and Shelynn Guillaume are about as close as friends can be.

Ranked No. 1 and 2 in Jones High School’s class of 2008, their grade-point averages are separated by a fraction, but their lives are joined by similar circumstances.

Both were new to Orlando when they started ninth grade at Jones in 2004.

Elease moved here with her mother and brother on the heels of an eviction in Louisiana and into a home without electricity or running water.

Shelynn came from New York because her family thought the warm weather might help her father’s fragile health. It didn’t, and he soon died.

The two girls bonded over what Elease called their “longing for success” and their personal struggles.

“We shared all that stuff,” Shelynn said. “We tell each other everything.”

Despite all the obstacles, both girls kept up their grades and kept their conviction that school would save them. It worked.

Now 18 years old, both graduate from Jones today. Next month, Elease is heading to Cornell University to study architecture. Shelynn is going to Florida A&M University, her sights on medical school.

In their sophomore year, Elease Samms and Shelynn Guillaume learned their class rank. Shelynn was No. 4.

“What’s stopping me from being No. 1?” she thought at the time.

She laughed recently as she recounted the story, then answered the question by jerking a thumb and tipping her head toward Elease, the top student then and now.

The two never battled it out for class rank, but each understood the other’s need to excel.

Elease laughs at Shelynn’s eccentric sense of humor, while Shelynn appreciates Elease’s caring nature.

When Shelynn could not afford her Jones High class ring, Elease and her mother chipped in to buy it for her, then surprised her with it on her birthday.

The theme of Elease’s planned valedictorian speech is a fitting one for both of them: overcoming challenges.

Elease’s story . . .

“My first experience with real hardship came when I was in the 8th grade. We got evicted from our apartment in Louisiana. Mom and Dad were in the process of separation, and my dad had stopped working, so we couldn’t pay the rent on time.

My mother brought me and my brother to Orlando where she had a house that her mother had left to her a couple of years earlier. The house was very run-down and Mom didn’t have a job. She had worked as a nurse in Louisiana, but her license had to be renewed in Florida. She was told this would take 6 months. She got a job at a telemarketing place to have food on the table.

She found that her house had a back bill — electricity that her step-grandfather had not paid ($1,400). We had no electricity or water for about 6 months. I had to start high school with no electricity or water. If we had money for bus fare, we would ride to the YMCA to take baths on Fridays. Otherwise, we borrowed water from a neighbor and washed from a pan.

School provided me with free lunch which was the highlight of my day. In spite of having to do homework by candlelight, I managed to keep my grades at A’s during that time.

After Christmas, Mom got her nursing license and got a job at Arnold Palmer. Money is still tight, especially since I’m a senior and there are many expenses connected with graduation, but there has never been a time like my freshman year.

(Excerpted from Elease Samms’ application for an award from COMPACT, a program that provides mentors to Orange County students.)

The summer before her freshman year, Elease’s family arrived in Orlando and moved into a house her mother had inherited from her late grandmother. It was vacant and unkempt and saddled with unpaid utility bills totaling $1,400.

Her mother, Heather, was a nurse but could not immediately get licensed in Florida, so she took a job as a telemarketer. The pay was meager, and it was months before she could pay that bill and get the power and water restored.

Elease and her brother rushed to finish their homework before it got dark, and used flashlights and candles when it did. She missed her old friends, her old neighborhood, her old life in Louisiana.

“I had my days,” she said, sometimes asking herself, “When is it going to end?”

Shy and reserved, Elease told few people at Jones about her family’s problems. But she slowly came to like her new school and make new friends. And she kept up her grades, admiring how they lined up on her report card.

“I just like making A’s,” she said. “It just looks good.”

Heather Samms eventually got her Florida nursing license and a good job at Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children. Once the TV started working, Elease got hooked on HGTV and intrigued by architecture, which she realized would combine her two favorite subjects: art and math.

At a scholarship luncheon, she met School Board member Anne Geiger, who introduced her to her husband, Walt, a local architect. Walt Geiger helped her assemble a portfolio for Cornell, gave her advice about school — architecture is a demanding five-year program — and invited her to visit his office to see architects at work. He offered professional guidance but said she needed no help when it came to academics.

“She’s very determined,” Geiger said.

“She saw what I went through, and she wanted something better for herself. No matter what, education is key. With a good education, you can do just about anything,” Heather Samms said. “She’s a driven child.”

Shelynn’s story . . .

“I live in a single parent household with two sisters and a brother. Life as I see it would have told me to give up a long time ago when all the pressures of society tried to knock me down. I never did understand why life had to bring us so much pain and sorrow.

I lost my father at the age of fifteen to brain cancer. However, I came to understanding that I needed to use that as a stepping stone, and not a blocker. I began to see life not as a bruise, but as an everlasting challenge. I learned at a young age that no matter what life may bring me, I could not let that hinder my success.

I have tried to excel in everything that I do because I knew that no matter how vicious the storm, or how tall the mountain, I had an obligation to keep on striving. It became clear to me that I was not the only one who had to battle lions and circumstances each and every day, because all of you have had to do the same thing. But it is always important for all of you to understand that you are all brick walls, and that nothing can knock you down.

You are all warriors who cannot be defeated. You are Jones High School’s fiercest tigers with every step that you take. You all have made it, and there is nothing holding you back from grasping the world.”

(Excerpted from the salutatorian speech Shelynn Guillaume will deliver at tonight’s graduation ceremony.)

Shelynn’s family lived in New York for about 20 years but relocated to Orlando, hoping her father’s health would improve in the milder climate. Instead, he ended up hospitalized — then diagnosed with brain cancer. Shelynn said her father was out of work and without health insurance, so he struggled to get treatment initially.

Shelynn’s mother worked the night shift cleaning hotel rooms and cared for her husband during the day. The four children took over after school and into the night.

“His health just got worse and worse,” Shelynn said. “He was so skinny.”

Despite the sorrow at home, Shelynn remained serious about school. Her parents, both Haitian immigrants, had limited opportunities for education growing up and insisted their children make the most of what was offered here.

So Shelynn made stellar grades even as her father’s health faded, ending with his death in July 2005.

Her scholastic success was a way to honor her father because, she said, “he wasn’t able to get an education for free like I was.”

The teenager, who announced at age 5 that she would be a doctor, plans to major in biology or chemistry and dreams of a career in obstetrics.

“I just thought it would be a great thing to help a family bring a newborn into the world,” she said.

Right now, Shelynn — who does a Saturday shift at Kmart — and her older sister work to help their family. Mireille Guillaume is in poor health and, as a result, unemployed.

Earlier this year, Shelynn got a mentor. Diane Hinton, a Jones graduate, helped Shelynn wrestle with financial-aid forms and prepare for college. Like Elease, Shelynn needed no encouragement when it came to focusing on school.

“I noticed that she had great determination,” Hinton said. “Her parents instilled that.”

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Written by Symphony

June 7, 2008 at 1:09 pm

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