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Mount Tahoma grad rises beyond adversity

A year of adversity is ending with renewed promise for Kahealani Candido of Tacoma. After sustaining serious injuries in a car accident and being diagnosed with cancer, Candido graduated with her class of 2016 despite starting the year with a sophomore status. Candido’s dream is to become a flight attendant, she said before Friday’s graduation ceremony from Mount Tahoma.
A year of adversity is ending with renewed promise for Kahealani Candido of Tacoma. After sustaining serious injuries in a car accident and being diagnosed with cancer, Candido graduated with her class of 2016 despite starting the year with a sophomore status. Candido’s dream is to become a flight attendant, she said before Friday’s graduation ceremony from Mount Tahoma. dkoepfler@thenewstribune.com

For the past several days, valedictory speeches and tales of academic achievements have filled the Tacoma Dome as local high schools graduate their seniors.

Sometimes lost in the glitz are the students who aren’t going to four-year colleges but have worked just as hard to obtain their diplomas. Many overcame obstacles that most adults will never face.

Kahealani Candido is one of them.

Dressed in her red gown, the Mount Tahoma High School student walked across the stage Friday to receive her diploma along with her classmates.

A year ago that would have seemed like an unlikely accomplishment for Candido — had she even thought about it.

“I wasn’t motivated for school at all,” Candido said. “I didn’t want to graduate. I didn’t care about my future at all.”

She admittedly was a poor student.

Though her mother, Tanya Herbeck, has been a strong supporter of her daughter, she couldn’t be a role model of a high school graduate. Neither of Candido’s parents graduated from high school.

Candido and her friends spent most of their time skipping classes rather than attending them. She blew off assignments and disrespected her teachers.

“I hung out with the wrong people — people that didn’t care about their education,” Candido said. “I guess when they say you are who you hang out with, that’s really true.”

The attitude spilled over at home, said Herbeck, a single mother.

“But I know it’s because of what she was going through,” Herbeck said. “I dealt with a lot with her. But I didn’t give up.”

A break-up with a boyfriend sent Candido into a depression during the summer. She was hospitalized after a suicide attempt in early fall.

In September, Candido’s school counselor introduced her to Trisha Tracy, the senior site coordinator for Communities In Schools of Tacoma. The nonprofit dropout prevention and school support program partners with schools nationally to access community resources.

“A lot of the work I do is just being an extra person for the students to talk to,” Tracy said. “Sometimes they can’t talk to their counselors or teachers and they just need a space to be and for somebody to just listen.”

Candido began her senior year as a sophomore because she was so behind in credits. But there was more adversity to come.

On Dec. 14, just a week after turning 18, Candido was driving to a store when she was involved in a car wreck.

During a medical exam after the accident, doctors found problems with her thyroid gland. It turned out to be Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune condition. Depression is one of the many symptoms it causes.

Hashimoto’s is the most common of thyroid conditions and disproportionately affects females. It can be associated with cancer in some cases.

Candido, it turned out, was one of those cases. After signs of early cancer were found, she had her thyroid removed in May.

“If she wasn’t involved in that car accident, they would never have found it,” Herbeck said.

Early in 2016, when Candido was recovering from the accident and dealing with her health issues, she began to notice a chorus around her.

It was a multitude — from her grandmother, mother, counselor and friends — all telling her the same thing: She wasn’t going to graduate in June.

Some of the messages, from the adults, were warnings and pleas. Others, from her erstwhile friends, were more like taunts.

“Her counselor kept telling me that she’s definitely not going to graduate,” Herbeck said.

“A lot of my ‘friends’ told me that,” Candido said, putting air quotes around “friends.”

It was then, after the depression, the accident, the medical issues, suicide attempt, missed classes and lack of role models that Candido realized she was at a make-or-break point.

She either could give up or graduate.

She chose to graduate.

“I really wanted to graduate, to prove everybody wrong,” Candido said.

But it wasn’t going to be easy.

In February, she finished her first online class to make up lost credits.

“That was one of my proudest days,” Tracy said.

Not only did Candido refocus on her full load of six regular courses but she also began to make up 10 others.

“I finished four classes in one night,” Candido said.

“She passed all of them,” Tracy said.

Candido only took a week off in May to recover from surgery.

“She was right back into it,” Tracy said.

“That’s when I saw a change,” Herbeck recalled. “She’s going to do it and she’s not giving up.”

Tracy works with about 90 kids at Mount Tahoma. She helps arrange tutors, helps with school work and brokers resources from food to backpacks. She also manages the online study system that helped Candido make up lost credit.

“Just being there for moral support,” Tracy said.

It wasn’t just Tracy and Candido’s family supporting her. She also got tough love from her counselor, senior class principal and even a school security guard.

The guard went from busting her for skipping class to being a mentor.

“I wrote him a letter, thanking him,” Candido said.

Her story isn’t an exception, she said.

“There’s a lot of kids like me at my school,” Candido said.

She has applied to Tacoma Community College but hasn’t yet chosen an academic path.

Though some of Candido’s situation is unusual, much of it is not, Tracy said. Many students deal with depression.

“Kahealani struggles with her self-esteem,” Tracy said. “I wish she was able to see how far she’s come and use that as her platform to change the world.”

“You accomplished the impossible,” Tracy told Candido before she graduated. “You have your whole life ahead of you.”

Candido is already a role model for her 12-year-old brother, Joshua.

“Don’t slack off,” Joshua said of the lessons he’s learned from his sister. “I’m going for a 4.0”

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541, @crsailor

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