Getting through school can be tough as it is, but for those with health challenges, student life can be especially difficult.
More than 20 teens from several schools in the area took time Sunday to attend a six-hour peer mentor training session at the Mason Center with Liza Tregillus, a regional social worker at the San Juan Basin Health Department who has been running the sessions for three years.
Through the program, teens with conditions ranging from diabetes to epilepsy discuss their experiences and learn to become mentors for younger students with similar backgrounds.
To kick off the training, Tregillus and Kathy Uroda, a volunteer helping Tregillus with the program, had students discuss some of the difficulties and benefits that come out of their various conditions.
Immediately a theme emerged among the teens who have spent years struggling to convince everyone from their teachers to their friends and parents that their conditions are real.
“Teachers have kids make up excuses all the time that are fake just to get out of doing something, so sometimes they don’t believe you even when it’s real,” said Bonnie Waller, a senior at Durango High School who broke her neck several years ago in a skiing accident and now suffers from migraines.
Some of the teens who suffer from epilepsy mentioned that people often think they are faking seizures.
“Not all epilepsy looks the same,” Tregillus said.
Like Waller, many of the students found school to be especially difficult.
Several students with attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder agreed with a student who said, “ADHD makes you hate school a lot more.”
Heidi Williams, a freshman at Animas High School who suffers from dyslexia as well as an unidentified learning disability, has also struggled with school, she said.
After being instructed to help another student draw a cartoon villain on the board, Williams said to draw “a teacher looking down at me, judging me,” and added a large “F” to represent “being set up for failure.”
Teachers also posed a problem for Kelsea Abeyta, a junior working to get her General Educational Development diploma. She suffered a traumatic brain injury in first grade when she was involved in a car accident. Abeyta now suffers from migraines and post traumatic stress disorder, she said.
“It’s hard with teachers because sometimes I can do a lot of work, but sometimes I get really tired. My brain gets tired,” Abeyta said. “Sometimes they forget, and you don’t want to say anything, and sometimes I forget. And then every time you get a new teacher, you have to start all over again,” she said.
Several of the teens identified Individualized Education Programs as a positive part of life with disabilities.
“IEPs are actually really awesome,” said Maria Root, a student who suffers from hearing loss and dyslexia.
“Taking a test is really hard, and you have to be pulled out of the class so you don’t feel like, ugh, I have to be really fast, but with this you can take three days if you need. Maybe do a part one day and another part the next day,” she said.
Williams agreed that IEPs have helped her, along with an influential teacher, she said.
“This is my first year mentoring. I had a great teacher last year, and that’s when I really got empowered,” she said.
In addition to helping students meet and support other students with similar health challenges, Tregillus hopes the program will help students stop feeling like they have to hide their conditions, she said.
“At first, I was like, I hate it. I didn’t want anyone to know. And now I’m like, I have dyslexia, get over it!” Williams said.