It’s the last day of school at Morton East High School in Cicero, IL. Maria Valdez, 18, is furiously typing on her computer as she puts the finishing touches on the last paper she’ll ever have to write in high school.
During the few hours I spend with Maria, I learn that she is determined to be known for her confidence and fearlessness—not for the 14 lb. ventilator (nicknamed R2D2 by Maria and her friends) she tows around with her to school every day.
Graduating High School on Time, Despite Adversity
Most people didn’t think Maria would be able to graduate on time with her class, but she proved them wrong last Sunday when she walked across the graduation stage to receive her high school diploma. Maria has overcome a great deal since the hospitalization that placed her on a ventilator 24 hours a day eight years ago—but she doesn’t let it get to her.
She wants people to treat her just like everyone else, and she works hard to have the same opportunities and life experiences as her peers. Today, she is stable at home due to her supportive mom and nurses who keep her grounded—and healthy—and plans to attend Morton College in the fall.
Perseverance When Times Get Tough
Tina Jones, one of Maria’s nurses, has worked with her for the last three years. When asked about their relationship, they look at each other and just laugh. They keep each other’s spirits up when times get tough. Maria wasn’t always as positive as she is now, but she has learned that laughter and perseverance will get her through anything.
At one point during our time together, Maria and Tina burst out in song from the movie Finding Nemo: “You know what you gotta do when life gets you down? Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming swimming swimming” These are the words Maria lives by every day.
Transformation to a Confident Young Woman
According to Joe Ojeda, Morton’s computer lab coordinator, Maria has an audacity for life that’s almost palpable. Maria and Joe became fast friends during Maria’s sophomore year when she started showing up to the computer lab every day for lunch.
“We have a saying around here: If Maria can do it, anyone can. She sets the bar for how we all view personal strength. She knows life isn’t easy, but she keeps her head held high and goes after the things she really wants,” Joes explains.
A few months ago, Maria decided to do just that. With the help of her nurses and sisters, she mustered up the courage to ask a young man to her senior prom. She surprised him at the gym with candles spelled out to “Will you go to PROM with me?” And he said yes.
Passion for Art and Photography
Maria loves to write, shoot photography, and do arts and crafts. Her favorite class is AP Studio Photography with Alonso Balderas. Mr. Balderas’ class has opened up her eyes to a career in photo journalism. Maria is passionate about capturing everyday people living everyday lives in her photography.
According to Mr. Balderas, Maria doesn’t let her disability get in the way of her success. “She is a very impressive young lady with amazing ideas. I can’t wait to see what she does next,” he says.
After my interview with Maria is over, I finally understand what her nurse and teachers were trying to tell me all along: Maria has a special talent for making everyone around her feel special.
We wish Maria the best of luck at Morton College this fall as she works to pursue her dream to become a photo journalist.