One escaped with distress and hardly during an armed home invasion that cost his father and a younger brother his life. Another suffered a tragic accident that put his ability to ever go in danger again. A third high priest, in need of help from a service dog, founded a social and support club for the disabled throughout the school district. A fourth has also experienced childhood trauma and is preparing with his big brother with special needs to teach a popular game that helps others with developmental disabilities.
Meet Holson Francis, Lia (Rui Rui) Bleifuss, Mateo Silva and Elliott Dreher.
They are among the 16 winners of this year’s Optimist Club of St. Paul College Fellow. Everyone deserves revaluations.
The $ 2,500 scholarships are awarded to the outstanding St. Paul high school seniors from mostly low-income families or college-aspiring youth who also overcome financial, physical and other difficulties. The club has awarded more than half a million dollars in scholarships since 1997 through its Youth Appreciation Foundation.
When I hear people whining or grumbling about today’s young people, I go against reality as well as with the stories of mostly unsung Saintly City kids like these. Investing in their future helps us all.
“In light of what we have all faced, these students have shown tremendous courage and courage that is hard to imagine,” said John Tillotson, a longtime club member and senior vice president at Stifel, a Twin Cities-based investment services firm. .
“They have spent countless hours trying not only to improve their lives, but also the lives of many around them,” he added. “They are true leaders, and we are so humbled by them and grateful that they live and go to school in St. Paul.”
Holson Francis, 18, senior at Johnson Senior High School, was about 9 years old in 2012 and had just returned from school when gun-wielding anti-government insurgents burst into the family home in the Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of Congo and shot dead his father and a younger brother. He fled through a window and sought refuge in a neighbor’s home. He was reunited with his mother, who was not home during the incident, several days later. The two then hiked on foot and by bus to reach a refugee camp in Uganda. Mother and son, who had family here, arrived in Minnesota three years ago.
A part-time model and talented visual and performing artist, Francis speaks seven languages - English, French, Swahili, Kinyabwisha, Kirundi, Kinyarwanda and Kinyakole. He is also a member of his school’s honorary choir and student leadership team. He ranks 53rd out of 268 in his senior class with a weighted GPA of 4.0.
He is interested in a career in menswear and plans to apply to New York City’s Pratt Institute, known for its art and design schools. He mentions American fashion designer Virgil Abloh among his most influential career role models.
“My goal is to make a positive impact on everyone I meet in this life,” Francis told me.
“His optimism and zest for life is quite impressive given the childhood trauma he faced,” writes Candace Pagel, a school counselor. “He is always positive and his energy is passed on to those around him.”
Lia Bleifuss, a senior at Highland Park High School better known by her Chinese nickname Rui Rui (pronounced Ray Ray), is an Energizer rabbit in the flesh. The 18-year-old founded the school district’s first student disability alliance club. She teaches children Chinese at Yinghua Academy, a language immersion school in the twin cities, where she attended classes from kindergarten to seventh grade. She indulges in adaptive sports activities that include swimming, rowing and skiing.
But wait. There is more. Throw yearbook editor, co-vice president of Special Olympics Minnesota Youth Board, and quoted to do a school-wide study of students’ disability experiences. She ranks No. 39 out of 306 seniors at her school with a weighted 4.61 GPA and earned an A and college score this summer from Johns Hopkins University after taking a virtual course titled “Anatomy, Physiology and Disease. “
Bleifuss, who was adopted by Ethan and Sherry Bleifuss when she was 1 year old from an orphanage in Hunan, China, has Charcot-Marie-Tooth Disease. The genetically inherited condition, diagnosed when Lia was around 6, is a progressive neuromuscular disorder that negatively affects her balance and fine motor skills.
“It mostly affects my legs and my hand strength,” she told me. Her mobility assistant service dog, Tango, a black Goldador (Golden Retriever / Labrador Cross), has been by her side at school and at home since seventh grade.
Bleifuss is planning a career in medicine and has applied early to Yale University. Northwestern University and Wellesley College are also on her A-list of schools.
“I would love to become a doctor,” she said. “I also love philosophy and the humanities and would like to build a bridge between the two – a doctor who focuses on medicine, but who also helps the patient emotionally and sees the whole picture …”
Teresa Hichens-Olson, Great River Schools director of college admissions, describes senior Mateo Silva as “one of the most amazing students I have ever had the privilege of working with within my 30 years of education.”
Silva, 18, is a creative soul who follows in her mother’s artistic footsteps, but leaves her own clear imprint. He ranks among the best in his senior class and has earned an International Baccalaureate World Diploma, which at some universities counts up to a year in college credits.
In addition to serving on the youth boards of Friends of the Mississippi River and the Minneapolis Institute of Art, Silva is a drummer for Kalpulli Huitzillin, a local Mexica / Nahua folk dance group.
Like her mother, Marisa Xiukuauhtli Martinez, a descendant of Tolteca and Maya, Silva is proud of her original roots. His Nahuatl language name – Tlakuilkoatl – means “he who paints snakes.” The snake represents cultural knowledge and wisdom.
He wrote and illustrated a graphic novel that highlighted the exciting hunting partnership between the coyote and the American badger to raise awareness among his peers and others about how the natural world unites despite differences for the benefit of each other.
“They hunt together, but only one of them can take the game at a time,” Silva explained. “The other one might get it next time. One of them might not benefit right now, but in the long run they have a much greater success at hunting together than on their own… we can learn from them.”
Silva was raised by her single mother and has not had contact with her father since the age of 10 in 2012, after the man’s custody was terminated following a criminal conviction.
Silva has a close relationship with and helps take care of her older brother, Tomás, a young man with special needs with autism who has also inherited a creative belief.
The two play and share a passion for “Magic: The Gathering”, a popular table game and digital trading card game that their mother is convinced has helped with Tomás’ reading and math skills. The two brothers have signed up next year to teach the game to other people with special needs at the Highland Friendship Club.
“(Mateo) is a responsible, kind-hearted, intelligent, hard-working and extremely talented young man,” said Martinez, an artist who owns a jewelry-making business in St. Louis. Paul, who is inspired by Native and Mexican cultures and traditions. “I am so honored and grateful to have been chosen to be his mother and one of his guides in this life.”
Silva has an interest in biology and science, and although he’s worried about whether he can afford them, he plans to apply to Macalester College in St. Louis. Paul and Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo.
Silva’s senior classmate Elliott Dreher also shares a passion for art. While juggling school on the Great River, Dreher works and has partnered with several nonprofit organizations in the region to produce short documentaries and media tools. He was also selected to judge the contributions of young filmmakers from around the world at last winter’s Minneapolis / St. Paul International Film Festival. He was also contacted by the school district to make a film about student leadership, and he plays guitar and writes lyrics for Energy Park, an indy rock band whose work can be found on Apple Music and Spotify.
Dreher suffered serious spinal cord and brain injuries after a sledge accident last winter. There was initial concern that he might never go again. He gradually regained the use of his legs after several surgeries and months of rehabilitation.
“I have rods and screws down my back,” he said. “I can not run physically yet. It will be much easier to walk, but stairs are still a bit hard.”
Hichens-Olson describes Dreher, who also graduates at the top of his senior class, as “friendly, sympathetic and a global citizen of the world.”
“I have seen Elliott deal with a serious spinal cord and brain injury with more grace and strength than I thought possible,” she wrote in her nomination application.
Dreher has applied for early action to Chapman College, California, which has a strong reputation for art.
“Movies are a way for us to escape our reality just for a little bit if we are ever stressed or need a break,” he said. “Fame is not a goal for me. I just want people to have that escape.”
Among his favorite films is “Spotlight,” the Oscar winner for Best Picture in 2016 for the Boston Globe’s efforts to shed light on a long-running scandal over the sexual abuse of church pastors in the New England area.
This time, the spotlight deservedly falls on these 16 young men and women.
They also include:
- Ava Brown, Central High School
- Liliana Rojas, Great River School
- Mary Duong, Pheng Xiong and Thanaporn Yang, Johnson Senior High School
- Aden Ahmed and Ju Nar, ALC International Academy
- Rain Htoo and Zareya Nolan, Washington Technology Magnet School
- Rachel Dickinson, Highland Park Senior High School
- Hser Htoo and Hamza Mohammed, Humboldt Senior High School
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