Class of 2020 is on a unique path

By Michael Kinney

In the next few weeks, the class of 2020 will be seeing an end to their high school careers. For the majority of them, it was like almost any other class that had come before it.

But that changed in March when all a sudden, the normal school days were turned upside down and they were left wondering what was going to happen on a daily basis.

“It has been pretty normal up until the week of Spring Break, then everything turned into a crazy set of events that initially felt like unbelief,” said Hunter Molloy. “Then I went into denial. Really, this has been a grieving cycle that has been all over the place.”

Molloy is an 18-year old at Elgin High School. Like thousands of seniors around the country, what was supposed to be the most rememberable time in high school turned into a time of uncertainty. Many of the plans he had to close out his high school career was canceled due to the spread of COVID-19 throughout the state and country.

“It was probably two to three weeks into the entire situation that it became real,” Molloy said. “It was real that I would not be able to see or talk to some of my classmates that I may never see again.”

It was pretty much the same way for McKenna Morrison, an 18-year old senior at Massilon Jackson High School in Ohio.

“This year just hasn’t felt real. Everyone is out of school but it’s not summer,” said Morrison, whose mother is a native of Lawton. “It hasn’t really hit me yet that March 14th was my last day ever at Jackson. I still feel like we’re on a long break and everything is going to go back to being normal.”

It wasn’t until March 25 that The Oklahoma State Board of Education voted to close public schools statewide for the remainder of the school year.

The board also voted to turn to distance learning as a way to finish out the school year. This also meant an end to any extracurricular activities.

“We were devastated,” said Eisenhower High’s Landon Augusta. “We had been fighting all season long in soccer and did not get to finish our season. I missed out on my final moments with my team and not being able to fulfill something we had dreamed of for four years.”

For an athlete like Molloy, not being able to finish off all of the hard work he and his teammates had put in made the situation worse.

“I can remember when I found out that baseball and all sports for the spring season came out to be canceled by the OSSAA, it became real and quite frankly, devastating. Our baseball team was on the brink of another promising season and we were all hungry for another run in the state tournament,” Molloy said. “I do believe when I heard that this was over, I felt like I had been hit by a huge truck. I have played baseball since I could walk and all of a sudden that last season was ripped out right from underneath me.”

Morrison, who will attend Ohio University, is also an athlete, but her sport of soccer concluded in the fall. What she missed out on the most were the normal traditions that go along with being a senior.

“Covid-19 really took away my last memories at Jackson. I didn’t have a prom, I have no official last day of school, and the thing that I’m most missing out on is my graduation,” Morrison said. “You only get to graduate once from high school and unfortunately, we do not get to do that. Yes, we all graduate but there’s no actual ceremony. When I heard that we weren’t going to get to walk across the stage I was very upset I may not have shown it but I was. That’s the one thing I was looking forward to. I didn’t care so much about prom but graduation was the one thing I wanted to have.”

At her school, Morrison said they have graduation plans for a drive-by ceremony on March 28. It is not how she envisioned it.

“Each graduate will be allowed one car and we can fit as many people in the car legally. We are supposed to wear our cap and gown as well. When we drive up the staff will hand us the case to our diploma and take a picture but we are not allowed out of the car,” Morrison said. “We are assigned a certain time to arrive. Then they will mail us our diploma. This is all happening on the day we were supposed to graduate.  I think it’s every kid’s goal to walk across that stage and graduate. We spent 12 years trying to get to that point and now that’s taken from us. All our hard work won’t be celebrated the right way. Walking across that stage is an accomplishment. I think it’s very upsetting to the grandparents and parents. They always look forward to watching their grandkid/kid walk across the stage.”

In Oklahoma, different school districts have varying plans for graduation ceremonies. Lawton Public Schools is scheduled to have virtual graduation for three high schools and Gateway Success Center on May 22.

The Moore School district has pushed their ceremonies back into late June and will have their seniors walk the stage at Cox Convention Center. If they have to postpone the services, they will be moved to July.

Molloy, who is heading to Cameron University,  is still hoping he will be able to walk the stage as well, but the odds are against him. His graduation is set for March 15th.

“Thankfully, Elgin Public Schools is still working on finding a way to try their very best to make this happen for us,” Molloy said. “I am so very grateful to them and our community for rallying around us and finding ways to honor our class even during this time. We do not know if or when this may happen, but it is not out of the question. I, along with most of my classmates, continue to pray that we will get the full graduation experience.”

For Augusta, he is coming to grips with not being able to complete his high school career as he wanted. As he heads off to trade school, he is looking forward to getting the next chapter in his life started.

“I regret it. I want to go back and still have all those memories with my friends,” Augusta said. “But on another note, getting into the real world fast and moving on getting a job wasn’t too bad either. The one thing I have learned is don’t take anything for granted. Our last moments in high school were stripped away, it makes you realize all the things you would go back and redo.”

While they are unable to go back and get a redo, the graduating seniors are in a position to still do amazing things. During his virtual commencement speech May 16, former President Barack Obama pointed that out to the class.

“No one does big things by themselves,” Obama said. “If we’re going to save the environment and defeat future pandemics, we’re going to have to do it together. So be alive to one another’s struggles. Stand up for one another’s rights. Leave behind all the old ways of thinking that divide us.

“When everything’s up for grabs, this is your generation’s world to shape.”

Michael Kinney Media

Track coach looking to beat the odds in battle with ALS

(Photo by Michael Kinney)

By Michael Kinney

OKLAHOMA CITY –The changes in his body can already be seen. A couple of months ago, friends and family would have had to look closely at Adam Helms to notice anything was wrong with the Putnam City track coach.

But now, with his arms and hands thinning as his muscle mass disappears, it has become evident that Helms has found himself in the middle of a battle with an opponent that is undefeated.

In March Helms was diagnosed with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), a disease in which muscles waste away due to the death of the nerve cells that control them.

“I started feeling stuff in January. In my hand. My index finger wouldn’t straighten,” the 38-year old Helms said. “I finally decided to go to the doctor I would say mid to late January and it took a while to get into a neurologist so it was March before I got in. And I actually got diagnosed the same day as our track meet. So March 30th, I left my doctor’s appointment and went and ran a track meet. I was devastated originally.”

ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. According to the ALS Association, the disease usually strikes people between the ages of 40 and 70, and it is estimated there are more than 20,000 Americans who have the disease at any given time.

Once ALS starts, it progresses and takes away the ability to walk, dress, write, speak, swallow and breathe. It eventually leads to death. The life expectancy for someone with the disease is three to five years and there is no cure.

“The future’s kind of an unknown. There’s not a formula. There’s not a blueprint for them to follow. It’s different with everybody,” Helms said. “And in some ways I got lucky because there are two types of it. There’s one that starts in your arms and legs, it’s called limb onset. And there’s another one that starts more in your throat and in your mouth and tongue which means you don’t swallow. You need help breathing. You can’t drink by yourself. Feeding tubes have to go in a lot quicker. So it’s just kind of one of those diseases that there’s no timetable. There’s no rationale or blueprint on what the future’s going look like.”

Helms is currently under the care of Oklahoma City neurologist Dr. Brent Beson. He gave Helms an unfiltered breakdown of exactly what his situation is.

“My first doctor, he was just trying to not drop the bomb on me,” Helms said. “But my current doctor (Beson) is more the band-aid approach guy. Just rip it off and we’ll just deal with it. I feel pretty confident in him. I don’t think he’s your typical doctor. He’s pretty open to a lot of things. If I want to try something he’s not going fire me as a patient. I’m going to have to fire him as a doctor before he’ll give up on me. Which is great.”

Yet, in the three months since Helms has found out he has ALS, he admits there have been some hard days. From informing his parents and sister to telling the members of his track team.

“I was more worried about the kids that I teach and coach because you don’t know what they are going through in their lives half the time,” Helms said. “I don’t think it’s fair to them until it’s absolutely needed.”

But there was nothing that could prepare Helms for sitting down and trying to explain to his three kids, who attend school in Yukon, what is wrong with him.

“That was rough. That was rough. My oldest son had a lot of questions. My daughter was a little numb. And my youngest son just didn’t really understand it at first,” Helms said. “So I ended up having to have a little bit deeper of a conversation with him. They still don’t know the name of it. Because I don’t want them Googling it. But other than that, they’re at a full understanding of what’s gonna happen, and how it’s gonna work. They know that my hands start getting a little bit worse, my arms start to get a little worse, my legs start coming into it. They’ve learned it eventually works its way into my lung area. The muscles around the lungs, that’s when you die.

“So they get that. They understand that it could be two years from now or 20 years from now,” They know. Stephen Hawking lived with it for 51 years.”

Overall, 2018 has not been a great year for the Helms and his family. His grandfather died in January. Three days before that, his friend of 22 years and fellow Putnam City coach Gary Wright passed away.

“It’s been a rough kind of year,” Helms said. “Whoever says it happens in threes is a liar. This happens in fives and sixes.”

For now, Helms is taking it day by day, trying not to let ALS control him. But he knows changes will have to be made. He will no longer coach basketball due to the schedule. However, he still plans to be leading his cross country and track teams for as long as his body allows.

“Biggest differences I see is the strength in my arms and hands. And then the second aspect is I get tired a lot,” Helms said. “I used to be able to work 15, 16 hour days and three or four in a row. Now if I work one day like that it takes me three or four days to recover. My doctor told me that I kind of live in that area after you’ve had a hard workout, you know, really hard workout and you know later on that night, your arms don’t want to move? Or your legs don’t want to move? Because that’s kind of where you live now. And when you do too much you live in that spot and then it takes you a couple days to get back to where you were before you did that other stuff.”

While Helms is preparing for the worst-case scenario, that doesn’t mean he isn’t planning to fight the disease in any way he can. He’s been in contact with former Jenks football coach Allan Trimble, who was diagnosed with ALS in 2016.

Helms is also enrolling in a new clinical study using stem cell research to combat the effects of ALS.

“There’s like six places that are trying it in the United States. It’s an Israeli-based company with a satellite office in New Jersey but I put in for it at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota,” Helms said. “I’ve gotten them all my medical records. They think everything looks good but I’m just waiting on approval from the doctor and apparently, that could take a month or two for a spot to open up and stuff like that.”

However, in order to be in the clinical study, he can’t take any of the normally prescribed medication (Radicava, riluzole) for ALS patients that have shown to slow progression of the disease slightly.

Before Helms even knew about the clinical study, one of the coaches at Putnam City started a GoFundMe page to help with the expenses that were sure to come. More than $6,500 has been raised.

Helms will use the money to pay for the 14 trips he will need to take to either Boston, Los Angeles or Minnesota for the stem cell study.

Despite how grateful Helms was, it was difficult for him to accept the help. Since word got out about the ALS, he has noticed a change in people.

“At times people have treated me like I was a kid in a bubble. And to be honest with you, that makes me feel a little bit worse than anything else, than even what my body feels,” Helms said. “Because they’re treating me different. And I don’t want to be treated differently, just let’s keep going. I’m sick but I’m still gonna be the same person till the day I die, whenever that is. Two years, 10 years, 30 years. Who knows when it is so I’m going to force myself to be happy.”

Yet, even with Helm’s determination to keep a positive mindset, dark times do hit. He said when he is home alone, it has given him time to reflect on his life.

“It’s made me realize that I have a lot of regrets. That life, personally, professionally, stuff, and it’s never good to live in the past to live with those regrets,” Helms said. “Because all that regrets do is stifle you for the future. Put them aside. Say the things you need to say to people that you need to say things. Quit living in fear. Because it’s not going help you, all it’s going to do is handcuff you. It limits you more than it does anything else.”

Helms knows at some point ALS will win. His body will break down, he will lose total control of his arms, legs and breathing. Then the tough decisions will have to be made because he doesn’t want to live on a feeding tube or respirator.

Helms one goal is to be around for at least seven more years to see all of his kids graduate high school. He said after that everything is gravy and they can “pull the plug”.

“Fortunately for me I know, my family will be taken care of, my kids will be taken care of,” Helms said. “They’ve got a good mom. They’ve got a good stepdad. They’ve got my parents. Their other grandparents, you know, my sister. Lots of good people in their life that’s not going to let them go without or need something. Within the Yukon schools I know the parents family, I don’t have to worry about it. You know, so there’s a lot of comfort in that.”

Michael Kinney is a Freelance Content Provider with EyeAmTruth.com, @EyeAmTruth

New school to offer Rey of hope

By Michael Kinney

Renee Porter knows the importance of education. Throughout her professional career with groups such as Choice Matters and Scissortail Community Development Corporation she has fought to provide more educational options for all families.

So when Porter was named the first President of the Cristo Rey Oklahoma City Catholic School, one of her first public statements was to let the community know that “every child – regardless of zip code or income – has the right to a high-quality education.”

For Porter, that is the foundation for her and her new school.

“That’s extremely important to me. For most people, their education is what allows them to be a functional, successful adults,” Porter said. “If a good education is out-of-reach to you, for whatever reason, you are at a huge disadvantage professionally and personally. If only certain areas of the state or people of certain economic backgrounds can get a good education, then we are creating a cycle of poverty and low attainment that is enormously harmful to us as individuals, damaging to our state economy, and morally wrong.”

That way of thinking may seem contrary to the stereotypes that have surrounded many private schools. But officials at Cristo Rey hope to change that perception when it opens its doors for the first time in the fall of 2017. According to Porter, the school will offer families with limited educational opportunities an affordable and transformative educational option.

“Every Cristo Rey school is designed to provide a world-class education to children who might otherwise not have access to one,” Porter said. “Obviously we can’t solve the world’s problems by ourselves, but for the 10,000-plus kids who go to Cristo Rey schools, they have received a lifeline to a future they otherwise would have had no idea existed.”

The Cristo Rey Oklahoma City Catholic High School will be the newest member of the Cristo Rey Network, which is a group of college preparatory high schools that serve more than 10,000 low- and modest-income students across the nation. The Network started 20 years ago and now consist of 33 institutions in 21 states and Washington, D.C.

According to Cristo Rey, nationwide only 15 percent of students who come from low income families graduate from four-year colleges and universities. The numbers are just slightly better for all income levels at 23 percent.

But Cristo Rey alums are completing four-year institutions at a rate of 32 percent.

“Cristo Rey Oklahoma City will provide an excellent Catholic secondary education to a wider segment of our community for families who might never have considered such an option,” said Rev. Paul S. Coakley, Archbishop of Oklahoma City. “Its unique education model combines quality academics with the opportunity to gain valuable work experience for young men and women as they prepare for higher education and the workplace. Cristo Rey Oklahoma City Catholic High School will have a tremendous impact on the spiritual and professional lives of our students.”

Because it’s also a Catholic school, Cristo Rey officials say they combine rigorous academics with real-world work experience, with the goal of preparing students for success in college and life.

But as Porter explained, the school is available to students of all religious backgrounds.

“We are open to students of all faiths, but we emphasize spiritual growth, faith-based values and personal responsibility,” Porter said. “Second, we exist to provide a great educational opportunity to low income families in under-served communities. A lot of times when these families hear ‘private school,’ the assumption is that it is financially out-of-reach. At Cristo Rey, 100 percent of our students receives financial assistance. We will work with every family to make our tuition affordable for them.”

But what makes Cristo Rey stand out from other schools, public and private, is its unique Corporate Work Study Program in which students work one day a week in professional settings to pay for their tuition.

“By having our students work one day a week at an Oklahoma City company, we are giving them exposure to the real world and job experience that will benefit them for the rest of their lives. It also makes attending Cristo Rey financially viable,” Porter said. “By working in professional settings, students are exposed to mentors, careers, and a connection to what is taught in the classroom. Students acquire the soft skills they need to succeed in the work place. They also graduate high school with an impressive resume that most young people their age don’t have.”

Cristo Rey could have set up shop in other cities and states across the nation, but they felt Oklahoma City was the right place for them.

“Over the past several years, individuals in Oklahoma City began learning more about the Cristo Rey model and inquiring about whether it could succeed here,” Porter said. “In fall of 2015, a Cristo Rey steering committee made up of people in and around Oklahoma City launched a feasibility study to measure interest and support for a Cristo Rey school. We wanted to determine: first, are there students and families interested in this kind of educational experience? Second, are businesses willing to participate in the Corporate Work Study program that makes the school financially viable?”

What the committee found was a community looking to provide their children a future that includes an education and a way to improve their lives.

“The support was overwhelming,” Porter said. “Kids were thrilled by the idea of going to a great school with opportunities to acquire work-experience and real world skills. Families were really excited about the opportunities for financial assistance.”

According to Porter, Cristo Rey has already received letters of intent from more than 30 business executives to hire students as part of the Corporate Work Study Program. They include Boeing, Mercy Health, Love’s Travel Stops and Country Stores, Bancfirst, Phillips Murrah and Cox Communications.

Cristo Rey Oklahoma Catholic High School will be located at 900 N. Portland Ave., in a leased space at OSU-Oklahoma City. According to officials, the school’s full enrollment goal is 500 students.

The school will serve 125 ninth-grade students in its first year of operation and will add an additional 125 students each subsequent year, until it serves grades ninth through 12th grades.

“I want to see hardworking kids have access to a good future – that includes both college and a career – that they otherwise could have never imagined,” Porter said on the impact Cristo Rey can have. “I want Oklahoma businesses to benefit by providing training and building relationships with their next generation of employees. And I want to strengthen our community by building bridges between the business community and the families and children who attend Cristo Rey.”

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Michael Kinney is a Freelance Writer. This story first appeared in The Oklahoma Gazette.

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