The endgame is here for Clark County graduates, who in a matter of weeks will be collecting their diplomas, flipping their tassels and turning the page on a new issue of their life stories.
This year, The Columbian is featuring five outstanding graduates who have proven themselves to be heroes. With hard work and positive outlooks, they’re fighting supervillains like substance abuse, poverty and, in one case, an actual fire.
Read on to see how these graduates are working to make the world a better place. And don’t miss Monday’s Columbian for a look at even more high school heroes, plus a full listing of every high school graduation ceremony in Clark County.
School: Battle Ground High School
Future plans: Anderson will attend Brigham Young University-Idaho, where she plans to study education or special education so she can become a teacher.
Hidden superpower: Can eat a whole watermelon in one sitting. “Like an actual one, not the single-serve ones.”
It doesn’t take much to make a difference in someone’s life. That’s the theory behind the “Just One Thing” initiative, an effort championed by Battle Ground Public Schools to support homeless people in north Clark County.
It’s a call Rylie Anderson has answered with gusto. Anderson is in her high school leadership class, where she’s organized a canned food drive and collected prom dresses and backpacks for students who couldn’t afford them.
“I saw the impact we were able to make in the school,” Anderson said.
The highlight of this school year, however, was a town hall she helped lead. Politicians, business owners, church leaders and school district officials met in April to unveil the initiative and brainstorm ideas on how to end homelessness.
It’s been a whirlwind of new experiences for Anderson, who hadn’t done much activism or public speaking.
“I was really nervous but it was really cool,” she said. “It was cool to hear other ideas.”
Maryke Haynes, who teaches Battle Ground High School’s leadership class, described Anderson as a creative student with a “heart of gold.”
“She takes a lot of initiative,” Haynes said. “If she has an idea, she doesn’t need a lot of direction.”
At the high school level, the mission of “Just One Thing” is to raise awareness of available resources, like the school’s food pantry or the district’s Family and Community Resource Center. Having students like Anderson at the forefront of that effort takes away some of the stigma of asking for help, Haynes said. Teenagers are more likely to listen to their peers and ask them for help, rather than going to an adult.
“We’re opening up that conversation,” Haynes said. “It’s OK if you’re struggling.”
Like any teenager, Anderson spends time on social media. She sees the Facebook posts from Battle Ground residents frustrated at the growing number of homeless people in the community. But for this busy teenager, being angry on the internet isn’t enough.
“If you’re going to complain about this, then do one thing,” Anderson said. “Do one thing and we can end this.”
School: Hudson’s Bay High School
Future plans: Cerrillos is heading to the University of Washington. She hopes to become a social worker or a lawyer. She wants to work in schools.
Hidden superpower: Intuition. “I can tell when people are genuinely good or if they’re hiding something.”
Fernanda Cerrillos would never have dreamed upon starting high school that she someday would be traveling to Washington, D.C., to attend a leadership seminar.
But that was before she joined the ¡Adelante! America Program. The organization is part of the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC. In September, Cerrillos attended the annual Washington Youth Leadership Seminar, organized by LULAC’s nonprofit education arm.
“It changed me as a leader,” Cerrillos said. “Giving back, being a part of this gives me a reason to be a part of my community.”
Cerrillos helped organize a group quinceanera two years ago for families who couldn’t afford one for their daughters. Different school-based LULAC chapters provided dresses and coordinated an event space for about 15 girls. The traditional 15th birthday celebration is a critical part of growing up for Hispanic and Latina girls, but it’s also expensive — a party can cost thousands of dollars.
“It’s super-important in Hispanic culture, but not everybody has the privilege,” Cerrillos said.
Cerrillos also provided child care to families at a Spanish-language orientation at Washington State University Vancouver. It’s work that hits close to home for Cerrillos, who has watched her parents struggle to navigate school events.
“I know when I show up to events where I can speak in Spanish or help guide parents to the right room, that’s super-important,” Cerrillos said.
Ana Betancourt is the program coordinator for ¡Adelante! America. She praised Cerrillos’ commitment to supporting students of color and undocumented families.
“I cannot tell you how much work Fernanda has put into really advocating for students of color to achieve higher education,” she said. “She constantly keeps working, not just for her, but for everyone.”
Cerrillos is also active in the National Honor Society and Key Club, organizing volunteer opportunities for students. She hopes to return to community activism after college, and wants to do work that supports students and families — like LULAC did for her.
“You have to put in the work if you want to belong to a community,” Cerrillos said.
School: Union High School
Future plans: Chapin will attend the University of Chicago, where she plans to double major in a social science and a STEM field. Her dream is to work at Pixar Animation Studios. Her favorite Pixar film is the original “Toy Story.”
Hidden superpower: Empathy.
Imani Chapin finds joy in quiet moments, like a recent walk with her younger brother, Mekhi.
Mekhi doesn’t like to leave the house, the 17-year-old Union High School senior explained. He likes structure, and is bothered by the shouts of young children. Mekhi, 15, is on the autism spectrum.
So for him to approach her on a recent afternoon, declaring “Shoes on, shoes on,” means something special is about to happen.
Chapin is the eldest of four children, two of whom are on the autism spectrum. Kaliq, 14, is high functioning, “super sweet and super talkative.” As a child and teenager, Chapin has been an advocate for her brothers, giving her a crash course in empathy and acceptance.
Her mom, Angie Chapin, called her “a calm, guiding light for our family.”
“It’s just been really special and uplifting to me to see her grow in so many ways through advocating,” Angie Chapin said. “Her empathy is through the roof. That’s been the greatest gift for me.”
Chapin is also passionate about storytelling and filmmaking, and has documented her family’s journey using poetry, art and video. She volunteers with local nonprofit Autism Empowerment, and spoke at the World Autism Conference and Expo in Portland two years ago with her youngest sister, 12-year-old Asjia.
“For me, my way of taking care of them is speaking on their behalf,” Chapin said.
Her family is not alone in benefiting from Chapin’s support and encouragement. This school year, she started publishing daily affirmative videos to Union High School’s social media feeds. She’s recorded more than 170, each starting with her trademark greeting, “Hi guys. It’s Imani here,” before reading an inspiring quote and offering commentary.
“It’s a pretty big commitment, but I love doing this,” she said.
They were messages Chapin herself needed to hear some days, especially when things were challenging at home. It gave her a sense of motivation, having a bigger purpose in her high school community.
“It was something I could count on every day,” she said.
And when you’re living with brothers on the autism spectrum, consistency can be helpful. Some days are peaceful, Angie Chapin said. Others are like volcanoes: explosive and chaotic.
When Mekhi came to his sister, announcing he wanted to put his shoes on and go for a walk around the neighborhood, it created a moment to appreciate.
“If we take the time to appreciate the now, then we never need to hope or dread, because we’ll have it all,” Chapin said in a recent video. “We got this, one morning at a time.”
School: Washougal High School
Future plans: Attend Clark College for two years, transfer to another college and study to be a music instructor.
Hidden superpower: Infectious smile.
Chloe Connors was too young to know what was going on, but she knew something was different. The youngest of five kids, it felt like her once tight-knit family was drifting apart. One of her older brothers, who previously hung out with her and talked to her, stopped doing both.
What she didn’t know until she was a bit older was that brother, who is about 10 years older, had a drinking problem that turned into a painkiller addiction and then a heroin addiction. She was in elementary school at that time. When she was 11, Connors and a different brother, Carson Connors, who was 13 at the time, started Challenge for Change, to bring resources and awareness to substance abuse issues to the Washougal community.
“Us youth have a very big voice,” Chloe Connors said. “We connect more with each other than an adult lecturing at us.”
She has continued to work on Challenge for Change throughout the last seven years. Her brother did, too, until he enlisted in the Marine Corps and recently reported to boot camp. Connors also worked with Unite! Washougal all four years of high school, and has received the 2018 Washington State Exemplary Substance Abuse Prevention Award for Youth Leadership.
Connors’ troubled brother battled his various addictions for about eight years, and is now clean, married and has children. Her family is close again, and Connors wants to make sure others know what resources are available to them when loved ones are going through similar struggles.
“I want to help mentor kids, support them and let them know they do have a voice,” she said. “Sometimes kids just need that push. I want to be there for them.”
In her time working in drug abuse prevention, Connors said she’s seen school administrators and staffers encourage and support her work. Her mother, Deborah Connors, said it’s important for families to know these things can happen to anyone, and there are resources available.
“In a way, you have to let go of the one who is using to save the rest of the family,” Deborah Connors said. “It was devastating. It was the hardest thing to come to. Chloe and Carson found a way to make sense of it themselves and try to help others move forward and heal. When you’re going through this, you feel like you’re on an island alone until you start reaching out and connecting to others. They shined a light on this issue in our community to let people know they’re not alone.”
School: Hockinson High School
Future plans: Pursue an aviation degree at Central Washington University and become an aerial firefighter.
Hidden superpower: Clairvoyance for knowing when the microwave is about to beep.
You’ll have to forgive Ben Tilkin if he doesn’t want to clean his bedroom for a while.
The soon-to-be Hockinson High School graduate was cleaning out his room in mid-April when he found a box full of papers. He took the box outside to burn on his family’s farm, but unbeknownst to him, there was a can of spray paint at the bottom of the box. The can exploded, catching Tilkin in the blast.
His cellphone was knocked from his hands, but Tilkin managed to run inside and call his parents. He was in shock, but knew he should get in the shower. Tilkin is a fire cadet with Fire District 3. His mother, Kathryn Tilkin, was nearby at an open house for her realty business, and rushed home to find her son in the shower wiping what he thought was paint from his face; in reality, he was wiping away his burned skin.
They called an ambulance, and some of the first responders were people Ben Tilkin works with at the fire station. He immediately went into fire cadet mode, his mom said, answering everything with a “yes, sir.” “How can you be so polite? You’re on fire,” Kathryn Tilkin remembers thinking from inside the ambulance. Ben asked for ice packs on his face, which was so hot the packs were sticking to him. He asked to be medicated, and once he was, he said it was like a warm blanket coming over him.
Tilkin spent three days in intensive care and missed a month of school due to his second-degree burns, but he’s feeling good now. His skin is still a little tender, and the most severely burned parts are colored a bit differently than the rest of his skin, almost like he has a heavy sunburn.
“He got a very expensive chemical peel,” Kathryn Tilkin said.
In mid-May Ben Tilkin returned to his work as a fire cadet, a program which offers hands-on training to students interested in careers as first responders. He was happy to be back, and said his experience hasn’t changed his plans to become an aerial firefighter.
“I know what being burned feels like,” he said. “It sucked. It was the worst pain. But now I’m prepared for that.”
Doctors told him his burns would have been worse if he didn’t act quickly and hop in the cold shower. Tilkin didn’t turn away any visitors, welcoming friends, family and coaches to see him, burned, in his hospital room. He didn’t want to take time to feel sorry for himself. He only wanted to start the recovery process. He said this process has shown him to take life as it comes.
“Early on, we had to convince him he was going to be good,” Kathryn Tilkin said. “He was in the burn unit, and we went on a walk to show him he was OK. There were a lot of people not OK in there. We survived something that could’ve been worse.”
Find a complete list of 2019 Clark County graduation ceremonies and baccalaureates on columbian.com.