'I almost felt like I had
God watching over me'
When she gave the closing argument in the Mock Trial academic competition this year, Monica Suematsu was doing her best for Aiea High School, but also fantasizing about her own life's dream.
"I became more determined and focused on going to law school," Suematsu said. "It's not tentative anymore, I am going to go to law school." Beyond that, her goal is to become a U.S. Supreme Court justice.
Suematsu, 18, valedictorian of her class, will begin that journey in September as a history major at the University of California at Los Angeles.
Actually, the journey began in fifth grade, a time when she began to fight feelings of insecurity and fear generated by her family life. Her mother suffers from schizophrenia and is now in a care home. According to the teacher who nominated her for the award, "Monica remembers coming home from school and finding her mother had left for parts unknown.
"From preschool age till she was in the sixth grade, Monica remembers a life filled with fears, dangers, guilt and confusion," said Luana Fukutomi. "She also lived with the fear of losing her father and having to depend on a mother who was unpredictable and dangerous."
Suematsu said, "In fifth grade, I guess I just realized that I needed to take care of myself and become more independent. I guess I did start to grow up a little."
She and her father, Edward Suematsu, share the chores at home and she visits her mother on weekends.
"I have a very wild imagination. It allowed me to place aside my miseries and focus on what is happy and constructive. I was able to see the guiding light that can be found in darkness. I almost felt like I had God watching me. I knew someone was there, whether it be my Dad or God, it was somebody."
She was student director for the Mock Trial competition sponsored by the Hawaii State Bar Association -- Aiea placed second statewide -- and the We the People competition in which students answer questions about the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. She was named outstanding social studies upperclassman this year and has won certificates of recognition in Spanish classes.
She also competed in cross country, earning varsity letters.
Suematsu won a $5,000 Horatio Alger national scholarship, given to students who overcome adversity, and was a Sterling Scholar finalist.
She also received the $900 Mufi Hannemann scholarship as athlete-scholar, as well as Aiea High's $1,000 Joe Moore award for academic excellence at the May 24 graduation.
Mary Adamski, Star-Bulletin
This gifted guitarist has made it on his own
The school counselor didn't even know senior Ryan Bradley had been living on his own for the past year.
"He had made the transition so smoothly," said James Peacock, senior class counselor at Kahuku High School. "Even without parental or adult guidance on a day-to-day basis, Ryan consistently makes healthy and wise decisions. He is a unique young man, who has matured well beyond his age."
An accomplished guitarist and advanced student, Bradley, 17, decided to finish high school in Hawaii after his dad and stepmother moved to Utah earlier this year.
To survive on his own, Bradley does home improvements for his landlord and works after school at the Sunset Beach Chevron Station until 11 p.m. With nominal money from his father, Bradley pays his rent, utilities, food, clothing, and expenses toward graduation and college.
"At school, Ryan is extremely successful," Peacock said.
Bradley is in Kahuku's Gifted and Talented Program and is taking advanced placement English. He's maintained a 3.36 grade point average.
"He is also an accomplished guitarist and excels at both classical and jazz music," Peacock said. University of California at Irvine accepted him as a music major.
"I've been keeping it going through lack of sleep," joked Bradley. "Every day I see people struggling to be comfortable, but I want to achieve something more. I knew I wanted to go to college and become a great musician."
He discovered music as a way to escape his troubled youth, he said. At age 10, it became his outlet.
"I've been the odd man out my whole life, which gave me a different perspective on the way life works," said Bradley, who also writes his own songs.
He spent his boyhood living in California with his mom, "who had her own problems." At 12, he began down a self-
destructive path of chemical dependency, until he realized, "I was becoming what I hated."
At 14, Bradley asked his father if he could live with him in Hawaii and moved here. He entered Kahuku and found the different cultures gave him the freedom to explore himself "without the usual white prejudiced viewpoints."
Living on his own the past year after his dad and stepmother moved away just brought him one step closer to his dream, he said.
Getting ready for UC-Irvine starting this month, Bradley said, "I have a tremendous sense of accomplishment. There is so much to look forward to."
Lori Tighe, Star-Bulletin
Big Isle girl excels
to overcome difficulty
Wearing a blue tennis outfit and swinging a racket, Collette Chinen of North Kohala on the Big Island looks like any other healthy teen-age girl.
There's nothing to hint that this Kohala High School senior has a tube implanted under her skin. It has carried excess fluids from her brain to her stomach since she was 5 months old.
Chinen has a condition known as hydrocephalus. Left untreated, it causes the head to swell abnormally, the symptom that first alerted doctors to Chinen's problem when she was a baby.
If untreated, it also causes brain damage.
Chinen has been eligible for special-education classes since first grade, but her parents, Ernest and Cassandra Chinen, kept her in regular classes the whole time.
The result has been her outperforming many other students. Her overall 3.543 grade average puts her in the top 17.5 percent of her class and has consistently placed her on the honor roll.
She will attend Chaminade University in the fall, with plans to become an elementary-school teacher.
"I work as hard as possible to get good grades," Chinen said. "It's very hard to memorize something quickly." The key is studying it over a two- or three-day period, she said.
She also has trouble expressing herself, said school counselor Janette Snelling. But an indication of her ability to overcome that is her school government position as corresponding secretary.
"She's on the shy side," said her father.
The normal teen-age problem of self-image wasn't made easier for Chinen in 11th grade, when half of her head was shaved for an operation. Doctors had to repair a disconnection of the tube that carries liquids from her head.
Her father said other kids were very supportive, and Chinen confirmed, "I'm just one of the gang."
Chinen tried cross-country track for two years, but admits to coming in second to last in some races. She switched from running to helping runners as an Ironman Triathlon station helper.
But she stuck with tennis for four years, finding it more social. "You get to play against people," she said.
"I have a good outlook," she said.
Rod Thompson, Star-Bulletin
Moanalua student loves
'excitement' of writing
Dara Fukuhara won't let a disability get in the way of a story.
Like the time she interviewed former University of Hawaii volleyball player Aaron Wilton for a story on celebrity stalking. The story became the highlight of her newswriting career at Moanalua High School.
"She's not afraid to propose stories or go off campus in search of the perfect interview," said newswriting teacher Lianne Voss.
Fukuhara has the persistence of a budding journalist. But not many journalists have been on crutches or in a wheelchair since childhood.
Fukuhara has Charcot-Marie Tooth Syndrome, a form of muscular dystrophy that weakens her muscles. Exercise helps, but she is forced to use her wheelchair more and more. And only recently has she fully healed from having two titanium rods inserted into her back two years ago to correct a curvature of the spine.
Fukuhara hasn't allowed those obstacles to stop her from attaining her dream of attending college and becoming a professional journalist, Voss said.
"I didn't think of my disability and my wheelchair," Fuykuhara said. "I didn't think of myself as different."
Fukuhara can bang out long feature stories on the keyboard using only her two thumbs, or using two pencils when she gets tired. She was this year's choice hands down for editor in chief of Moanalua High's newspaper, Voss said. She's also served two years as president of Quill and Scroll, a media honor society.
From her wheelchair, the soft-spoken Fukuhara delegates tasks. Under her direction the newspaper staff produced a September issue for the first time.
Fukuhara admits that she has difficulty having to rely on others to do things for her such as retrieve books from her bag, remove caps from pens or lay out the school paper.
But she focuses on doing the things she can do: overseeing the production of the paper and excelling in her other classes, earning membership into the National Honor Society.
She took it upon herself to secure a paid internship at Ka Leo O Hawaii, the University of Hawaii newspaper, while still in high school, and will continue working there this summer while going to school.
Fukuhara was attracted to reporting after watching reporter Lois Lane in "Superman."
"I like the excitement, and I like to write a lot," she said. "Since I can't do much other stuff, at least I can write and express my ideas."
Debra Barayuga, Star-Bulletin
An awful illness points her
to a medical career
Juvenile dermatomyositis. It rolls off her tongue easily, but Radford High School senior Elizabeth Bortmes knows it's not easy living with the incurable and chronic disease.
She went from being a high school swimmer and cross-country runner to not being able to raise her arms to brush her hair, carry a backpack or stand from a sitting position.
With the malady now in remission, Bortmes wants to go into medicine and help other youths cope with the disease, also known as juvenile arthritis. "I realize how rare this is and how scary it is for kids to go through," she said.
She was diagnosed in April 1996, four months after she developed an ugly rash on her face and around her eyes that turned into red lesions.
Attending high school in Virginia at the time, she became weaker and her muscles ached and spasmed continuously.
Under a promising new treatment involving massive doses of steroids and chemotherapy, Bortmes began losing her hair, gained about 60 pounds, and became severely depressed. "I looked terrible and hardly recognized myself," she said.
The steroids also attacked her immune system, and she was unable to fight off colds and other viruses that kept her out of school nearly half of her junior year.
Her friends didn't understand what was happening to her and stopped calling and inviting her out. Her self-esteem dropped, and she began lashing out at everyone.
The turning point came when her father, who is in the Navy, received orders to come to Hawaii. The family moved here in February 1997.
It was the break her body and mind needed, she said.
Among new friends at Radford High who didn't judge her by the way she looked, Bortmes blossomed. With the warmer climate, she was sick less often. She stopped taking steroids about a year ago and stopped chemotherapy in January. Her hair has grown back and she has lost weight.
"I began to feel, look and act like a normal, healthy teen-ager again," Bortmes said.
Bortmes isn't afraid to tackle challenging classes such as advanced placement biology, chemistry, European history and trigonometry.
"I wanted to work hard, rather than get straight A's in easy classes and not do anything," she said.
"She just glows now," said Amelia Hew Sang, Bortmes' guidance counselor at Radford. "It's remarkable she's come out this way, having been through so much. I just know she'll be very successful."
Debra Barayuga, Star-Bulletin
Family hardships fail to derail
Kendra Makaniole had the crown of Waialua High School's valedictorian within reach, until family hardship caused her to topple.
Tension escalated between her and her father, an unemployed plumber raising four children on his own, until Child Protective Services removed her from the home in January. When her grades plummeted as a result, her teachers noticed.
"My teachers came up to me. It was this big thing," she said. "They said, 'This is your life. You can't let this control your dreams and aspirations.'"
Makaniole managed to pull her grades up, not enough to become valedictorian, but enough to graduate as No. 2 salutatorian. The 17-year-old won the Star-Bulletin's $1,000 scholarship for achieving academic greatness in the face of adversity. "I couldn't have done it without the support and guidance of my teachers," she said. "It helped a lot."
One teacher in particular helped: her ninth-grade English teacher, Gregory Kamisato. He and his wife volunteered to be her foster parents, and she moved in with them in January.
"Over the course of my 10-year teaching career, I have witnessed many students who 'fall down' over obstacles they encounter," Kamisato said. "Many do not 'get up.' Kendra is a student who not only has overcome these barriers, but has succeeded academically and personally."
Kamisato first met Makaniole in his English class. She earned nothing but A's and was named ninth-grade English student of the year. She repeatedly made the honor roll and principal's list of students with 4.0 grade-point averages. She participated in marching band and played varsity soccer in her junior year. She finished 11th grade first in her class.
"I started slipping at the beginning of my senior year," Makaniole said. "It became too much for me to handle alone."
Her father, jobless for months, had begun to take his stress out on her, she said.
The arguments grew until CPS intervened.
"I understand the economy, but still, I was sick of being treated this way," she said.
In her English teacher's home, Makaniole devoted her efforts back to school.
In one class, she brought a D in Advanced Placement English up to a B.
"I didn't want to let myself and others down," she said.
"I have learned you have to think about yourself and what you want to be in life.
"You have to concentrate on what's important, follow what you think is right, and talk it over with people."
Lori Tighe, Star-Bulletin