It's ironic, but Raylene Charley's year of hardships made one thing very easy for Pueblo Community College faculty and staff.When time came to honor the student who'd most persevered through adversity last school year, the Durango campus had an obvious pick. Charley was the unanimous choice for the 2009 PCC Alumni Student Recognition Award, which came with an unexpected bonus.
See if you don't think her scholastic journey is a study in perseverance:The 26-year-old Navajo woman was feeling pretty good about things in the fall, with just a few classes left to take for her associate of arts degree in early-childhood education.
The three jobs she was working? That didn't faze her. The classwork? That was no huge worry.
Even though her first language was Navajo, she'd converted to English as a young child. She grew up on the reservation in a small town called Castle Butte, Ariz., and in 2003 moved with her boyfriend to Durango. So she'd broken language and cultural barriers that can pose problems for some students.
It was in October that the complications began.
Charley received a call from one of her sisters. Her father had rolled his car and was being taken to the intensive-care unit in Flagstaff, Ariz., with a head injury. She took leave from her jobs and school and went home to help. It was two weeks before her father was out of the ICU.
Charley returned to school, but around Thanksgiving received more bad news: Her grandmother was in the hospital with pneumonia. The eldest of four children, Charley had been raised by that grandmother, Betty Paddock, and it was Paddock who instilled the importance of education.
Not long after that, Charley herself suddenly was battling a mysterious ailment. A doctor thought she might have suffered a stroke. Then the fear was she might have multiple sclerosis, and in January, she underwent a spinal tap. Pain from the spinal tap became unbearable - possibly she'd developed an infection - and she spent a couple days in the intensive-care unit.
Perhaps her ailments were merely stress-related. As the eldest, she felt pressure to stay strong. During her father's crisis, she helped financially support the family in Arizona. (She's healthy now, and nothing major was discovered. Her father is recovering, but difficult rehabilitation continues.)PCC instructors worked with Charley so she could catch up. She got through the first semester, and was rolling along again when, in February, her grandmother's condition worsened.
"We lost her," Charley says, and accompanying tears show the grief remains. "My grandmother, she had a big influence on me. She understood that education was important."
While Charley was in high school, her grandmother sat her down and told her, in Navajo, "You can't just stay here. ... You need to just motivate yourself to go and get yourself an education."
Last month at graduation ceremonies, Charley wore traditional Navajo dress; most of her family was there, her grandmother in spirit. She was bestowed with the student recognition award, and her moving story and humble background prompted a remarkable, anonymous donation from an attendee. Charley now has a brand-new laptop and printer.
"I've never received anything that huge as a gift," she says during a sometimes-emotional interview in an empty PCC classroom.
Charley's honor "has been a very moving thing for all of us," says Lisa Barrett, a PCC teacher and coordinator of student services. The two have developed a close bond.
"Raylene's part of my life," Barrett said.
Barrett once worked with Charley at Tri-County Head Start, and witnessed the Navajo woman's talent with toddlers.
"She definitely has a gift to work with children," Barrett says. "There's just some people who have that ability, and kids in the room just get excited. And she's one of those people. The kids love her."
Charley is in the process of answering the question, "What's next?" She wants to take the fall semester off, then go for a bachelor's degree, perhaps at Fort Lewis College or through Colorado State University.
Ultimately, she talks about returning to the reservation to teach youngsters.
"I know a lot of great little kids who are back home who would probably need some kind of focus like that," she says.
And all of us can use a little bit of Charley's inspiration.
[email protected]John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.