ESPANOLA, N.M. (AP) – One of Autumn Sanchez’s first lessons on her journey toward realizing her dream of becoming a veterinarian was to always remove any rings before working with animals.
At about age 7, Autumn didn’t shy away when her father, Mark Sanchez, asked her to help him with a difficult calving. Growing up on a ranch in Velarde with 40 head of cattle, some horses and working dogs meant Autumn was intimate with the responsibilities of raising animals.
She would become even more so after helping her dad pull a calf.
Autumn and Mark worked together until their hands were dirty and the calf was nuzzling its mother. That’s when they realized her dad had lost his wedding ring. Fortunately, it took only one day to find.
Smiling as she recalled the incident, Autumn, now 19 and a resident of Abiquiu, said her dad’s teachings at the ranch – from horseback riding to running cattle to hunting – have helped propel her forward.
“My dad was all about respecting our animals,” she said. “I think of him every time I get on a horse.”
Autumn is working toward her bachelor’s degree in biology at Northern New Mexico College and plans to study veterinary sciences after she graduates from Northern in 2021. But when she tosses her cap in the air, there will be a pang of longing: Mark Sanchez, who spent 16 years in law enforcement won’t be there. Autumn’s father committed suicide in May 2011.
Still, Autumn has persevered. In between earning a high school diploma through a Farmington-based online charter school, the New Mexico Virtual Academy, competing on horseback in rodeos, hunting and helping her family, she volunteered at soup kitchens and other organizations around her northern New Mexico community.
In November, she was recognized for her community service with a $500 scholarship from The Pain Behind the Badge – a nonprofit dedicated to preventing suicide among law enforcement officers and aiding families affected by it.
After losing her father, Autumn has been on another journey, one of recovery. As she has relied on her mother, Joy Sanchez, and younger brother, Lucas, for support throughout the years, Autumn chose to take the tragedy and use it as fuel to propel her to reach her childhood dreams and goals.
“It’s a choice: You could rise above it or use it as an excuse,” she said. “In a way, his death pushed me to work harder.”
Some who have lost a parent or whose parents have divorced, she said, use it as an excuse to drop out of school or get into drugs or go down a shadowed path. Faced with the conflict, Autumn found a way to reflect what had happened into motivation and strength in her life.
“You can feel bad for me, but don’t feel sorry for me,” she said.
Getting back on a horse helped her overcome the challenges she faced in her father’s absence. After a taste of rodeos through rodeo queen pageants, Autumn decided to teach herself barrel racing and started competing when she was 11. She watched as seasoned riders competed and then mimicked their patterns on her horse at home. Most of her improvement came from trial and error, she said.
As she rose to this new challenge, it kept her occupied.
“I didn’t really have time to sulk in self-pity,” she said.
For a good two years, Autumn said she did not accept that her dad was gone. As she found strength in her mother and brother, and as she continued with her life, she now finds a connection to her dad in her riding and is better able to talk about what her family has gone through.
“He did pass away and he did pass away in an awful, kind of awful thing that he did,” she said. “You kind of have to see the good outweighs the bad. I was raised my whole life with him being so amazing to me and teaching so many things to me.”
Autumn attributed this growth to her mom, who kept the family together with a positive and matter-of-fact attitude about moving forward.
“I can only imagine to be half the woman she is,” Autumn said. “If she can look at life that way, so can I.”
Joy Sanchez, an administrator at Los Alamos National Laboratory, said her daughter has always been strong, but she has gone through this ordeal with a lot of poise.
“Her ability to adapt is just incredible,” Joy said. “She’s just a very independent, hardworking and strong kid.”
Joy helped start a group in 2011 to organize hotlines for local firefighters and police officers dealing with mental health issues. This was one way, she said, that she tried to re-channel the family’s struggles.
“Getting through it is dealing with the heartache that somebody is not there,” she said. “I felt I needed to stay strong for the kids and show them how to keep going. There are so many ways for people to go down after that, but I wanted to show how we could move forward.”
After receiving the help from The Pain Behind the Badge, Autumn said she wants to get involved with scholarship fundraising to help give another student the opportunity she received to nourish her passion. While she has endured tragedy, she said it spurred her personal growth.
“It kind of shapes you into the person that you are,” she said.