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For Melissa Gaston, the one constant in her life has been her dedication


June 16, 2002

to learning and making the most of her


By vanessa de la torre

Staff Writer

Dateline: Imperial

When class treasurer Clemencia Vargas told her classmates they should thank their moms and dads for guiding them to this point in their lives — graduating from Imperial High School — there was at least one student who may have felt a tinge of sadness.

Melissa Gaston, a 17-year-old born in El Centro, has been in foster care on and off since age 2. Her mother, who she hasn't seen in six years, was declared unfit to raise her. She was abusive and "not a good person," Melissa said, agitation clear in her voice.


As for her father, he wasn't a "dad" because he was "never in the picture."

Unsteady at the foundation, the one constant in Melissa's life has been her dedication to learning and making the most of her circumstances. On Friday night she graduated fifth among a class of 137 students.

"She's a very mature young lady," said Linda Weck, one of two senior counselors at Imperial High. "Really hard-working — Melissa's worked hard at getting those good grades and turning in college and scholarship applications."

Aside from academics, Melissa lettered in basketball and was a star of the girl's track team, participating in the hurdles, 400 meters and long jump and garnering the most valuable athlete and coaches' awards at the end of her senior season. She also was a statistician for the varsity football team.

Although Melissa was nervous about talking to a reporter and singing with the school's chorus during the ceremony, she said she felt no jitters or regrets about leaving high school. Graduating from college and later running a first-rate company are her top goals.

"I've always been determined to go to college, even when I was little," said Melissa, who will study business administration at California State University, Fullerton. "It's really hard because most kids who live in foster care don't make it this far, and if they do, then they usually don't go to a university."

Melissa's family unit consists of a younger brother, Paul, 12, who lives with her in Imperial, and a sister, Josie, 14, who lives in Calexico. Her relatives in Niland don't "claim" her, she said, but that doesn't matter because the class of 2002 has been like her extended family.

"Everybody takes care of everybody. You don't get along all the time, but everybody's like your brother and sister; if you need someone, someone will come up to you and help you," Melissa said.

As the graduates lined up in the gym, waiting for "Pomp and

Circumstance" to signal their procession onto the football field, it seemed as if the faculty were part of that family, too. The students cheered English teacher Kathy Francis after she hollered last-minute instructions, and when it was "showtime," each student either

high-fived or hugged Sandy Slomski on the way to the field.

Slomski is also an English teacher who, along with a few other faculty members, was

later presented with gifts of appreciation from the senior class.

"They're such a great group of kids," said Principal Jerry Johnson after the two-hour ceremony. "The ones who were here on the stage worked

pretty darn hard and we're just glad they made their graduation.

Johnson added, "The kids in Imperial are the best. They're so easy to work with, and that's from the heart."

This year Imperial had two students share valedictorian honors: Chance Downs, 17, and David Thomas, 18. While Chance quoted historian Stephen Ambrose during his valedictory speech, David quoted himself, drawing laughter and shouts of approval

from the crowd. David recycled a part of his eighth-grade graduation speech, telling his classmates, "I want to congratulate all of you graduating for dreaming dreams and reminding you that your greatest achievements are still ahead. So don't sit around and wait for them to come to you."

Like many college-bound students, Melissa feels nervous about living outside the Valley for the first time and dealing with potentially aggravating roommates. But she's diving into the experience headlong.

Melissa woke up at 4 a.m. Saturday morning to attend an orientation session at CSU, Fullerton. And on June 25 she heads back to Fullerton for a four-week "summer bridge" program.

After a fireworks display concluded the ceremony at Tiger Field, family and friends mobbed the newly graduated with gifts, cameras and

congratulations in tow. Some students cried and said they were going to miss their high school buddies. None of that for Melissa, though.

"I'm just really excited — I'm not sad at all!" she said.

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