Students overcome obstacles to graduate

Krystle Wagner • May 17, 2018 at 12:00 PM

As high school seniors embark on the next chapter of their lives, three local students reflect on the obstacles they’ve overcome in order to receive their diploma.

Spring Lake High School

A year and a half ago, Emily Bee thought graduation was impossible. 

Now, she is days away from graduating from Spring Lake High School after turning her life around with the help of Kendra Gardner. Bee, 17, moved in with Gardner almost a year ago to get a fresh start.

At 8 years old, she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that was brought on, according to Bee, by severe trauma she experienced as a childAt 11, she was diagnosed with major depressive disorder.

Bee said her family lost its home when she was 14, and she spent a summer sleeping in a truck parked in the woods. She struggled with substance abuse when she was around 15 as her own form of therapy, she said. Along the way, Bee also battled an eating disorder.

Finally, one night last summer, Bee said she “wanted to give up.” Instead, she called her aunt, Kendra Gardner, hoping to find that fresh start she so desperately needed.

“On impulse, I had to fight my thoughts and what I might have done,” Bee said. “So I called my aunt and she got me the same night.”

Eager for a fresh start, Bee said she wanted to prove her worth to herself, and prove to others she could get her diploma and attend college.

Since moving in with Gardner, Bee has blossomed. She’s resumed her passion for performing on stage, and is excited to see her dedication and hard work is being noticed.

“My potential was no longer masked by my past,” she said.

When she moved to Spring Lake, Bee was determined to remain in the traditional high school setting because she worried how enrolling in an alternative education program would look on college applications. Plus, she wanted to prove she could succeed.

In addition to taking regular courses, Bee also took online classes. She was behind in some subjects and struggled at times, but with help and motivation, she learned the content.

Throughout her senior year, Bee received all A’s and B’s. That’s quite a change from her previous educational experiences. Early in her high school career, Bee’s report card had C’s, D’s and failing grades. 

Her grades improved to C’s and B’s during her junior year, and she had straight A’s in the final trimester of her junior year.

Bee said she was previously on a “destructive” path, and she wanted to change that. She believes getting help is what made the difference.


“I’m worth it, and I have a lot of potential,” she said.

Bee now hopes to major in biochemistry and enter a forensics field. She might also study a science to understand brain chemistry in relation to mental health disorders. She also plans to continue participating in theater, singing and writing.

Although Bee previously distanced herself from her passion for theater, she’s returned to the stage and singing. She said theater is a way to escape and be someone different.

“The stage makes me feel fearless,” she said.

Bee said she doesn’t let her mental health define her, and she stopped trying to fight it so she could learn to live with it.

Everyone at SLHS has been accepting and open, Bee said, which she believes has played a role in her success.

Ann Henke, who has been Bee’s guidance counselor at SLHS, said she couldn’t be more proud of the young woman.

“She exceeded our expectations,” Henke said, “with what she had to overcome, to be that determined where a lot of students might give up.”

Gardner said she and her husband, whom Bee calls Uncle Rocky, are proud of the graduating senior.

“She’s an amazing kid,” Kendra Gardner said. “She’s going to do great things in life.”

Bee encourages others to have patience.

“You’ve just got to stick through it and fit in as much work as you can, so that it turns out to be something great in the end,” she said.

Western Michigan Christian High School

Hard work and focus are some of the keys that Tyler Van Beek says helped him get to graduation.

In elementary school, Van Beek, now 18, was diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). He said it was hard to focus and he was constantly restless.

“School didn’t come easy for me,” said Van Beek, a graduating senior at Western Michigan Christian High School in Norton Shores.

Although Van Beek spent hours studying, he only received C’s, while his friends didn’t have to put forth the same level of effort to receive A’s. Van Beek said it didn’t always seem fair, but he knew he gave it his best.

In middle school, Van Beek did a research project for an independent study class about ADHD, and he learned that some famous athletes, including Michael Jordan, also live with the disorder. Seeing the famous athletes’ success further drove him to wanting to be the best he can be, he said.

Throughout high school, Van Beek also balanced academics while playing three sports — baseball, basketball and soccer. He burned the midnight oil to dedicate time to study, and he devoted Sundays after having lunch at his grandmother’s house to go home and study until it was time for church youth group.

“He has worked hard to get to where he is, and I am so proud of him,” said Amanda Bosscher, a school counselor at Western Michigan Christian who has known Van Beek for four years. 

Van Beek plans to attend Muskegon Community College, where he might continue playing soccer. Although he’s still considering his career path, Van Beek said he plans to pursue a future in something with sports. While he won’t be a professional athlete, Van Beek said he can help other people work toward their dreams as his coaches and father did for him. 

Along the way, Van Beek said he’s developed good relationships and he’s sad to see his high school career end. He thanks his dad, Jeff, for coaching him in sports, pushing him to do his best and attending every game in his high school career. 

Van Beek encourages students to enjoy their time in high school.

”You’ve really got to enjoy high school because, before you know it, it will be gone,” he said. “Do the stuff that will make memories and always give it your all.”

Central High School 

Dylan VanDam will graduate with the class of 2018 later this month. 

While this accomplishment is a highlight for many students and parents, VanDam’s journey to the graduation stage is one of perseverance, determination and overcoming obstacles. 

The traditional classroom setting didn’t cater to his learning style.

"School doesn't come easy for me, as I'm more of a person who works and learns with my hands,” he said.

VanDam credits his parents for pushing him to stick with school and work hard, even though the school process didn't come naturally to him. 

In 2017, his father died unexpectedly, and the loss left him devastated. Suddenly, the thought of going to school became more of a struggle than ever. Like any teenage boy who loses his father, VanDam found it difficult to concentrate on his studies.  

VanDam’s mentor, former Grand Haven Area Public Schools Superintendent Keith Konarska, helped push him the past several years. He also gives credit to his teachers at Central High School for "sticking with me.” 

While his father won’t be there to hug him after graduation, VanDam knows his dad would be thrilled to see his son’s hard work pay off.

"He knows I'm graduating,” VanDam said, "and I know he's proud of me.”

Recommended for You

    Grand Haven Tribune Videos