One of them barely survived during an armed invasion of a home that took the lives of his father and younger brother. Another had a tragic accident that jeopardized his ability to walk again. The third excelling, in need of a service dog’s help, has established a schoolwide disability support and social club. A fourth has also experienced childhood trauma as he and his older brother with special needs prepare to teach a popular game that helps others with developmental disabilities.
Meet Frances Holson and Leah (Roy Roy) Blevus, Matthew Silva, and Elliot Dreherr.
They are among the 16 winners of this year’s Saint Paul College Scholarships. Everyone deserves to write.
The $2,500 scholarships are awarded to outstanding St. Paul High School seniors from predominantly low-income families or young people hoping to go to college who are also overcoming financial, physical, and other hardships. The club has provided more than half a million dollars in scholarships since 1997 through the Youth Appreciation Foundation.
When I hear people grumble or complain about today’s youth, I am confronted with reality as well as stories of unpopular Santley children like these. Investing in their future helps us all.
“In light of what we are all facing, these students demonstrated tremendous determination and courage that is hard to imagine,” said John Tillotson, longtime club member and senior vice president at Stifel, an investment services firm based in the Twin Cities.
“They have spent countless hours trying to improve not only their lives but the lives of the many around them,” he added. “They are true leaders, and we are humbled and thankful for them because they live and go to school in St. Paul.”
Holson Francis, 18, is a student at Johnson Senior High SchoolAnd He was about 9 years old in 2012 and had just returned from school when armed anti-government rebels stormed the family home in the Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and killed his father and younger brother. He escaped through the window and took refuge in a neighbor’s house. He met his mother, who was not at home during the accident, several days later. The two then took a trip by foot and bus to a refugee camp in Uganda. Mother and son, who had a family here, arrived in Minnesota three years ago.
A part-time model, visual artist and talented performing artist, Francis speaks seven languages - English, French, Swahili, Kinyapuisha, Kirundi, Kinyarwanda and Kinyakul. He is also a member of his school’s Honor Legion and Student Leadership Team. He ranks 53 out of 268 in his first class with a weighted GPA of 4.0.
He is interested in a career in menswear and plans to apply to the Pratt Institute in New York City, which is known for its art and design schools. He cites American fashion designer Virgil Abloh among the most influential models of his career.
“My goal is to make a positive impact on everyone I meet in this life,” Francis told me.
“His optimism and happiness in life are impressive given the childhood trauma he faced,” wrote Candice Bagel, the school counselor. “He is always positive and his energy is transmitted to those around him.”
Lia Bleifuss, a freshman 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 Students with Disabilities Alliance club. She teaches children in Chinese at Yinghua Academy, a language immersion school in the Twin Cities where she has attended classes from kindergarten through seventh grade. She enjoys adaptive sports activities that include swimming, kayaking and skiing.
But wait. there is more. Co-editor of the yearbook, co-chair of the Youth Board of Special Olympics in Minnesota, cited the creation of a district-wide survey on students’ disability experiences. She ranked 39 out of 306 students in her school with a GPA of 4.61 and earned an A and college credits this summer from Johns Hopkins after taking a virtual course called “Anatomy, Physiology, and Disease.”
Blevoss, adopted by Ethan and Sherry Blevoss when she was one year old from an orphanage in Hunan, China, has Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease. The genetically inherited condition, diagnosed when Leah was 6 years old, is a progressive neuromuscular disease that negatively affects her balance and fine motor skills.
“It mostly affects my legs and the strength of my hands,” she told me. Her dog, Tango, a black Goldador (Golden Retriever/Labrador Cross), has been by her side at school and home since seventh grade.
Blevoss plans a career in medicine and early applied to Yale University. Northwestern University and Wellesley College are also on the list of schools.
“I would love to be a doctor,” she said. “I also love philosophy and the humanities and would like to tie the two together – a doctor who focuses on medicine but also helps the patient emotionally and sees the whole picture…”
Teresa Hitchens Olson, Director of College Access at Great River School, describes Matthew Silva as “one of the most amazing students I have had the privilege of working with in my 30 years in education.”
Silva, 18, is a creative spirit who follows in his mother’s artistic footsteps but is making his own mark. He is among the top in his first class and holds the International Baccalaureate Diploma, which in some universities goes up to one year in undergraduate credits.
Besides serving on the youth boards of Friends of the Mississippi River and the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts, Silva is a drummer for Kalpulli Huitzillin, a local Mexican/Nahua dance group.
Like his mother, Marissa Ziocochtli Martinez, a descendant of Toltec and Maya, Silva is proud of his indigenous roots. His Nahuatl name – Tlakuilkoatl – means “he who draws snakes.” The snake culturally represents knowledge and wisdom.
He penned and illustrated a graphic novel that highlights the exciting hunting partnership between a coyote and an American badger to raise awareness among its peers and others about how the natural world unites despite differences in favor of one another.
“They fish together but only one of them might take the game at a time,” Silva explained. “The other might get it next time. One might not benefit now, but in the long run they have much more success hunting together than alone… We can learn from them.”
He was raised by his single mother Silva and has not been in contact with his father since the age of 10 in 2012 after the man’s parental rights were terminated after a felony conviction.
Silva has a close relationship with and helps take care of his older brother, Tomás, a special needs young man with autism who also inherited a creative determination.
The two play and share a passion for “Magic: The Gathering,” a popular tabletop and digital trading card game that their mother strongly believes helped Tomás’ reading and math skills. The two brothers signed up the next year to teach the game to other people with disabilities at the Highland Friendship Club.
“(Mato) is a responsible, kind-hearted, intelligent, hard-working, and extremely talented man,” said Martinez, an artist who owns an artisanal jewelry business in Saint Paul inspired by indigenous and Mexican culture and traditions. Age.”
Silva is interested in biology and science and although worried about whether he can afford them, he plans to apply to Macalester College in St Paul and Fort Louis College in Durango, Colo.
Silva’s first classmate Elliot Dreyher also shares his passion for the arts. While at Great River School, Dreher works and is involved with several non-profit organizations in the area to produce short documentaries and media tools. He was also chosen to be an arbitrator in the demands of young filmmakers from around the world at Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival. Also tapped by the school district to create a film about student leadership, he plays guitar and writes lyrics for Energy Park, an indie rock band whose work can be found on Apple Music and Spotify.
Dreherr suffered severe spinal cord and brain injuries after a ski accident last winter. There were initial concerns that he might never walk again. He gradually regained the use of his legs after several surgeries and months of rehabilitation.
“I have bars and nails in my back,” he said. “I can’t physically run yet. Walking has become a lot easier but the stairs are still a bit difficult.”
Hitchens describes Olson Dreher, who is also graduating on top of his first class, as a “kind, likable, and cosmopolitan citizen of the world.”
“I watched Elliott deal with severe spinal cord and brain injuries with more grace and force than I thought possible,” she wrote in his candidacy application.
Dre applied for early action at Chapman College in California, which has a strong reputation in the fine arts.
“Movies are a way for us to escape from our reality a little bit if one day we are stressed out or need a break,” he said. “Fame is not a goal for me. I just want people to run away.”
Among his favorite films is “Spotlight,” the 2016 Best Picture Oscar winner for The Boston Globe’s efforts to highlight the long-running church sexual abuse scandal in the New England area.
This time, a well-deserved spotlight on these sixteen young men and women.
They also include:
- Ava Brown, Central High School
- Liliana Rojas, Great River School
- Mary Deung, Feng Cheung and Thanaporn Yang, Johnson Senior Secondary School
- Aden Ahmed and Joe Nar ALC International Academy
- Rain Htoo and Zareya Nolan, Washington Technology Magnet School
- Rachel Dickinson, Highland Park Senior High School
- Hisar Hatto and Hamza Muhammad from Humboldt High School