The Star-Bulletin is proud to honor these six high school seniors for outstanding achievement under extraordinary circumstances. The annual awards, founded in 1987, recognize public high school students who overcome major obstacles to graduate with excellent records. Also considered are grade-point average, extracurricular activities and community service. Each winner receives $1,000.
HILO -- Three years ago, Hilo High School student Dana Williams suffered three skull fractures when someone hit him on the head. He was on his way to buy a newspaper with a story about him building an electric car.
Dana WilliamsHilo High School
After walking again, he's ready to soar
Now a senior, Williams is still focused on becoming an electrical engineer.
But he's had to relearn a few things -- such as how to walk.
"For two months, the left portion of my body was paralyzed," he said. "The doctors told me it would be two years at least before I walked again."
He refused to believe them.
"I worked my hardest every day to move my left side. I guess sitting up was a big thing, and standing for the first time.
"Taking my first steps was a big milestone for me."
Three months later, he said, he was walking.
Williams ranks 15th in his high school class of 339, said his counselor Charlene Masuhara. Although he joined the school's Academic Decathlon team late, he received three medals in the state competition and participated in the national Academic Decathlon this spring in Utah.
He won first place in electronics in the state Vocational Industrial Clubs of America competition and will participate in the national competition in Kentucky in June.
He is also a founding member of the Zoo Crew, whose members serve as volunteer docents at the county's Panaewa Rainforest Zoo.
Recovering his mental abilities after the attack -- the crime was never solved -- was as hard for him as learning to walk again.
Williams attended speech and other therapy five times a week. "I'm missing certain factors such as attention and memorization," he said.
His short-term memory is still bad. The maximum time he can concentrate on a subject without a rest is a half-hour. "I have to work a lot harder than the average person," he said.
Masuhara said Williams' recovery was probably speeded by the maturity and determination he had even before the attack.
That, in turn, may be the result of coming from a single-parent family, she said. "He is the man in the family."
"He always shares with other people," Masuhara said. "He's always helpful."
Living in a home with no running water and no electricity. Slogging through 21/2 miles of muddy road to the nearest highway to catch the bus to school. Caring for her brother and sister and worrying about her parents.
Moana MintonKahuku High School
Given a chance to excel, she took it
That she was able to concentrate on her studies at all is a testament to Kahuku High School senior Moana Minton.
"What she's done, she's done because it comes from inside her," said Lea Albert, principal of Kahuku High School. "She is truly a wonderful child."
Minton attended several different schools by the time she was a sophomore in high school. Then her family moved from Kaneohe to Punaluu.
"We lived in a different house in every year I've been alive," she said. "I'm so used to doing things on my own, being isolated in the middle of nowhere, the phone not working."
Then she found a place where she felt she truly belonged.
"Kahuku (High) was a really good place for me to be," she said.
Growing up without the social, emotional or physical support most people her age take for granted, it was difficult adjusting to the strong religious ties that bind the Kahuku community, she said. And the support from teachers and faculty was overwhelming.
"It was really a shock to get into a school so determined to bring students to their full potential. Everyone was doing so much stuff there I kind of felt obligated to start doing things, too," she said.
Minton immersed herself in campus organizations -- from environmental clubs to student body government. She joined the water polo team, wrote for the school literacy magazine "Tusitala," and a column for the North Shore community paper. She also began volunteering in the community.
And her grades shot up: She's been on the 4.0 GPA list consistently since sophomore year and was inducted into the National Honor Society.
She's won awards in poetry, speech, essay and physics in various statewide competitions.
This fall, Minton heads for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where she was accepted with honors.
"I always wanted to do all this stuff I'm doing now," she said. "Being surrounded by people who cared about me triggered that. Once I started, it was over."
Perseverance. Gordon Wong knows only too well the meaning of the word.
Gordon WongWaianae High School
He excelled despite deaths in the family
It may have begun when he survived a complication of the flu at age 7 that left him paralyzed. He spent three months in the hospital, unable to talk or move. He recovered after a strict rehabilitation program but was held back a year of school because of it.
His mother, with whom he was very close, died of lupus in 1993, separating the family. His grandmother died just the year before, two years after Wong lost his grandfather. He ended up staying with his sister and her family, who live on government assistance. With senior activities through the year, it was hard to ask for money.
"Through it all, he has such a positive attitude," said Jackie Brodeur, counselor at Waianae High School, who helped Wong wade through college and scholarship applications. "When I think of Gordon, I think perseverance."
Wong is set to graduate from Waianae High School in the top 8 percent of his 366-student class.
He was accepted to the College Opportunities Program at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, but is considering Seattle University and the University of San Francisco.
Since his junior year, three Saturdays a month would find Wong among a select group of Leeward Coast students catching a bus to UH for the Hawaii Upward Bound program. Designed for underprivileged youths whose parents do not have college degrees, the program has the students spending the day in community service projects or attending cultural activities.
Through it all, Wong pushed himself, said Upward Bound director David Kong. "In terms of persistence and desire to do something with his life, he stood out. He has a dream, latches on and works toward it."
Wong's dream is to earn a college degree, perhaps in computer engineering.
His grand-uncle reminded him once that "life is what you make it, and how you take it on determines whether or not you succeed." That, Wong said, motivated him to take on challenging classes such as trigonometry, physics and honors British literature -- and still maintain A's.
He credits role models such as marine science teacher Susan Lum and Kong for pushing him to excel. And his mom.
She suffered when she was still alive. "That got to me," Wong said. "I strived to do well in school so I could take care of her." Now that she's gone, "I want to keep going until I'm doing good."
While helping to care for her diabetic mother daily, Jacqueline C. Nartatez has also excelled academically and become a student leader at Lanai High School.
Jacqueline NartatezLanai High School
Responsible, gracious, busy -- and a 3.9 GPA
Each weekday, the 17-year-old travels frequently between home and school in the small community of Lanai to help her mother, Flora, with insulin shots.
Nartatez, the only child of parents who divorced when she was 5 years old, also checks her mother's blood count and diet.
"I began doing this when I was 12 years old," she recalled.
The responsibility at an early age taught her to manage time wisely, a skill she uses to juggle schoolwork and extracurricular activities.
As a senior, she has maintained a 3.9 grade point average while serving as student body treasurer, yearbook editor and captain of the varsity pep squad.
She was selected as the school's outstanding language arts student and Spanish student.
Nartatez also has worked to help others, participating in fund drives of the Lanai UNICEF for the past three years and as a volunteer at the Lanai High & Elementary School Store.
During the past summer, she was a child-care provider for the Maui County Summer Pals program.
This year, Nartatez was a contestant in the Miss Lanai Filipina Pageant, where she received an award for creating a handmade turno dress.
"Her greatest contribution may be her gracious personality and sincerity in working with students and adults," said school principal Norma Baroga.
Nartatez said she was grateful for the financial help she received from the federal government while her mother was in and out of hospitals, and to her aunt Herminia and family.
"They took care of me when my mother was either sick or hospitalized and helped me to take care of my mother," she said.
Nartatez will be attending the University of Hawaii-Manoa, where she wants to study nursing.
"Caring for my mother has been a great influence in creating my interest in nursing," she said.
"I want to be able to help people who are sick and to make sure that they are receiving the best care."
KAPAAU, Hawaii -- Kohala High School senior Davelynn Torres has a message for neighbors who still remember her as that poor girl from the abusive family: Stop feeling sorry for her. She's doing just fine, thank you.
Davelynn TorresKohala High School
This 'most improved' overcame big obstacles
When she was 8, her father killed her mother. Torres had already been living with foster parents, her aunt and uncle, for two years at the time.
"Over the years, she has struggled with the knowledge that her father took her mother's life, but has found it possible to find forgiveness," said Kohala High School counselor Janette Snelling. "Throughout her school years, she has found it especially tough to be understood."
It's that excessive sympathy, Torres explained. "You would think I would be the one to dwell on it, but it's them that dwell on me," she said.
The abuse in the family began before she was born, Torres said, and she felt it as a little girl.
"I felt like I didn't mean anything. I felt like I was put here to be walked on."
But her Aunt Blanche and Uncle Samuel Torres taught her she could have a better life, and she developed her own determination to do just that.
"I didn't want to turn out like my parents. I wanted a better life," Torres said.
She brought her grades up to a B average this year while participating in numerous activities such as Talent Search, Future Homemakers of America, stage band, cheerleading and sports.
"I love to swim. I was brought up in the ocean. I love to fish. I play basketball and volleyball," she said. And she plays those sports despite a deformity in her hip, which means she has to try harder than most.
"I love being with my family (aunt and uncle). My immediate family is what I call it," she said.
Torres also talks with other kids through Alternatives to Violence. "If somebody wants to do something that will get them into trouble, I sit them down and talk to them," she said.
With a love for writing, she was named most improved student in English last year.
"I express myself mostly through writing," she said.
She plans to become an elementary-school teacher.
"Where she thrives most is when people see her for what she can be," Snelling said. "She wants to be known for who she is."
At age 16, Justin Kuhl was sitting in a doghouse to hide from the police when he realized his life was going nowhere.
Justin KuhlKaimuki High School
It's never too late to turn your life around
"I was sitting there, all crumpled up, thinking, 'Man, Justin, what the hell are you going to do after this?' " Kuhl said of the night he finally turned himself in to the police.
That night, 2 1/2 years ago, Kuhl was driving a stolen car from Kona when Hilo police tried to apprehend him. Kuhl said he remembers almost killing himself and a woman in the area. After swerving and hitting a pole on a sidewalk, Kuhl got out of the car and ran through yards, jumping fences and hiding in shadows.
After his arrest, Kuhl was charged and sentenced to three years at the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility; he was paroled after spending six months there. Now 18 and a senior, he has a 3.2 grade-point average at Kaimuki High School.
"I never really did try. And then I tried (at Kaimuki High School) and I got A's and B's," Kuhl said. "But I missed out on so much education."
Kuhl is enrolled for the fall semester at Kapiolani Community College and is interested in business. He said he is eagerly looking toward his freedom when he completes parole in October.
Kuhl started early in his life of crime. He was arrested for the first time when he was 11 years old, for stealing candy and slippers from a 7-Eleven store.
His mother had abandoned him and his two older brothers when he was 3. His father, a registered nurse, worked a lot and didn't have time to spend with his sons. Kuhl said he and his brothers became drug addicts and convicted criminals.
Kuhl learned to read by reading his court papers.
Now living with the Hui Ola John Howard's program and the Hale Kipa Independent Living Program, Kuhl goes to school and has jobs teaching preschool children and working as an actuary's assistant. He said keeping busy helps keep him out of trouble and allows him to pay his rent and food bills.
"Teen-agers think they have a hard time. They don't even know," Kuhl said. "Their parents won't let them go out. They have cars, but they're stressed."
Kuhl said the most important thing he's learned is that "no matter how messed up you think you are, there's always a chance to turn your life around."