At this time last year, Victoria “Tori” Wade was trying to drop out of high school following a tumultuous junior year that ended with her hating school, hating people and hating life in general. Weighing only 82 pounds from a combination of severe depression and having too little to eat, Tori was struggling to both work and go to school–and had no parents to help since her father had passed away and her mother had decided to move out of state at the end of her sophomore year. Believing staying in Exeter was in her best interest, Tori convinced her mother to leave her behind to live independently with her boyfriend, despite being unsure of her future and whether she would ever graduate from high school.
But last week, Tori defied the odds and did exactly that.
In truth, Tori’s school career and childhood were never easy. When she came home from elementary school, her parents abused substances and constantly argued and screamed at each other. Almost every week, her home was visited by Child Protective Services, ambulances or cops. Her home was infested with fleas, lice and bedbugs, embarrassing her from ever inviting friends over. Shortly after she moved to Exeter in 7th grade, her father died, and later the pandemic hit, deepening her family’s financial and emotional struggles. It was during this time that Tori lost many of her remaining friends as she navigated online schooling–an environment in which she struggled academically and mentally. When she returned to school following the pandemic, her disinterest in school worsened–leading her to cut classes regularly by the end of her junior year. “By then, we thought we lost her,” said her school counselor, Mrs. Andrea Freese.
But believing she could do better and holding tight to the belief that “sometimes you have to get over the obstacles that you have,” Tori renewed her determination to graduate high school and showed up on the first day of her senior year. Exeter’s social worker, Mrs. Ashley Rinehart, helped connect her with the Exeter Community Education Foundation (ECEF) and other local resources, who helped provide her with basic necessities, such as food, clothing, insurance and phone cards. Mrs. Freese and Mrs. Alycia Lenart, the district’s Student Support Coordinator, figured out an academic plan to help her catch up from what she missed in her junior year and how she could earn credit from working–a necessity for her to continue to live independently. “Once she approached us for help, it was truly a team effort,” said Mrs. Rinehart, who describes Tori as one of the most mature students she’s ever supported. “Tori learned this past year how to advocate for herself, which is something that some adults much older than her haven’t figured out.”
Mrs. Lenart, who helps students navigate difficult personal situations in or out of the classroom, said, “I believe that there are very few people in this world that can be dealt the hand that Tori was and succeed with grace and tenacity.” Further explaining what she’s seen during her 23-year career here in Exeter, Mrs. Lenart continued, “Without having a family’s support, students like Tori usually become dropouts, wind up abusing drugs or alcohol, have severe mental health obstacles–or all of the above.” Agreeing, Mrs. Freese said, “In her circumstances, some would give up and not realize that they can overcome such adversity,” she says. “It’s very rare to see a student overcome the obstacles that were in front of her.”
Those who know and worked closely with Tori praise her for her determination and maturity, but more than anything, they describe her as grateful. Mrs. Freese also says that she believes that Tori’s story offers hope and inspiration to others. “When you see someone overcome all that she’s been through,” she says with an emotional pause, “She’s just an inspiration. Her story could inspire others who are struggling with other problems in their life that are not nearly as life changing or challenging.”
With her diploma in hand, Tori now plans to continue her education to become a licensed hairstylist. But she can’t help but take a moment to reflect back on this past year when graduating seemed out of reach: “I did it,” she says emotionally and proudly. “And I couldn’t be happier.”