Grad bounces back from adversity

Posted: Monday, May 20, 2002

Exceptional students are often regarded as such for their scholarship or for their service. But what is the catch-all adjective for students who overcome exceptional circumstances to do what so many students take for granted?

For Kenai Alternative High School graduate Joel Milette, that descriptive word would be resilient, according to the school secretary, Phyllis Halstead.

"He bounces back," she said.

Language arts and math teacher Dawn Edwards-Smith expressed a similar opinion of the 19-year-old.

"He doesn't quit," she said. "I can't think of any time that he's given up."

Without parents to offer immediate support, guidance or even motivation, Milette returned to school two and-a-half years ago and received his high school diploma Friday from the Kenai Alternative School. Although he admits that he played a part in his situation, he also recognized a truism of life that guided him back to where he is now.

"A few years back I thought I was better than school, and I dropped out," Milette said. "I found out I was going to have to work the rest of my life, anyway. So I came back to finish."

At age 14, as a sophomore at Skyview High, he said he just left. He lived with his brother Jeremiah until the older sibling moved to California.

"I ran away from my mom and my stepdad," Milette said. "After that, I lived with my brother for a while."

Dennis Dunn, Alternative School principal, said Milette is like many of the students enrolled there.

The school only accepts students who are behind their regular class and want to complete their high school education.

"He's a youngster who's been on his own for a long time," Dunn said. "He's a survivor. He was at a point where he had bagged it, and he's come back."

Surviving, for Milette, meant making some choices to be successful.

He said he had to make some changes to be able to continue to balance work and school.

"I was kind of just jumping from house to house," Milette said. "I lived with friends, but moved out because there was a bunch of parties all the time. You can't do that and school and work."

Milette lives by himself in a room at the Kenai Merit Inn, through an arrangement worked out with Dunn and hotel owner and Kenai Peninsula Borough District school board member Joe Arness.

"I told him the rules," Arness said. "I told him to 'keep your head down so I don't know that you're here.'"

Milette said he also agreed that he would remain in school and graduate. And Arness said everything has worked out.

"He's been a great kid," Arness said.

Milette works at the Big Dipper Car Wash through the school's cooperative learning program to support himself. He placed third in last year's state Vocational and Industrial Clubs of America carpentry competition in Anchorage and said he wants to continue working with wood, among other things.

"I'd really like to become a carpenter," Milette said. "But I don't really want to do any one thing."

He said he also wants to travel with his brother to Arizona, and to Idaho to visit his younger sister, Hope. And then travel around the Lower 48 taking pictures.

"I just want to be one of those people who can go when I want to," Milette said. "But I know I've gotta work, too."

And he said he's learned an important lesson from his time away from school.

"Stay in school and have fun while you're there," Milette said. "If you don't make it where you can while you're there, you can't go back."

Friday evening, Milette was lined up with his 20 classmates to receive his high school diploma. He gave flowers to his mother, Vicki Heinz, and to Arness, thanking them for their help. And he led the class in turning their tassels to signify their graduation.

Those who have worked with him since his arrival at Kenai Alternative have high expectations.

"When (Joel) first came through the door, the thought of graduating never entered his mind," Dunn said. "I want him to be able to look in the mirror and realize what a special person he is."

Edwards-Smith said Milette's never-say-die attitude will carry him far.

"No matter what life's thrown at him, he's just kept going," she said. "You can't teach that."

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