It's hard enough being a teenager without having to climb or knock over obstacles either placed in front of you or that you helped put there yourself.

Violence, drugs and gang-banging were Jake Barrett-Tomlinson's game before he put down his shovel.

"I was digging myself a hole almost too big to get out of," said the soon-to-graduate Willard Alternative High School senior, who had been kicked out of school after school in Wyoming and Montana for criminal behavior before getting one last shot at Willard.

On Thursday night in the Sentinel High School cafeteria, Barrett-Tomlinson was in the spotlight again - not as a teen in trouble with the law or school authorities, but as a young man being honored for his inspiration.

He, along with 51 other Missoula County middle- and high-school students, were held up in front of a packed room of students, parents, Superintendent Alex Apostle, Mayor John Engen and Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger as Missoula County Public Schools' "Most Inspiring Students." Each received a medallion, certificate and uproarious applause.

The award ceremony is a first-ever - and soon-to-be annual - event arranged and hosted by the Missoula Education Foundation in conjunction with the Exchange Club of Missoula and MCPS.

Recognizing that it isn't just grade-point average but character that needs to be recognized in young people, MEF director Rosemary Harrison enlisted the support of the Exchange Club and the district to find MCPS students who have risen above sometimes seemingly insurmountable odds.

"These kids are not necessarily valedictorian kind of kids, but who excelled in their lives in other ways," said Harrison.

Pete Pettersen of the Exchange Club, a service organization that annually awards scholarships at its Accepting the Challenge of Excellence banquet, said the club immediately got on board with MEF's efforts.

"It's totally about the kids," he said. "And that's what draws us to an event like this."

Overcoming physical disabilities, illness, violent childhoods, neglect, loss and addiction - and other ways to lose their innocence - all 52 students have nonetheless focused their minds not only on their education, but in helping other struggling students.

"This," said Apostle, who is in his second year as MCPS superintendent, "is what we need to be doing."

None of their particular stories was shared at the ceremony, but Thursday afternoon, three Willard students agreed to talk about tough lives that created tough circumstances they are hell-bent on overcoming.

Mike Larson, a senior and single father, was only 16 when his son Robby was born two years ago. Kicked out of his home and evicted from Big Sky High School, something clicked in Larson when he set eyes on his boy.

"As soon as I became a father, I looked at life in such a different way," he said.

Larson and Barrett-Tomlinson, who are friends, have become natural leaders at Willard, mentoring younger students who are struggling to find their way at the alternative high school.

Here is Larson's message to them:

"It doesn't matter your background or what you've done," he said. "Show the staff respect. Show the school respect. You'll be amazed at what happens."

Willard junior Jessie Piscitello is working through her own troubles, and a mental disorder that has traumatized her teen life.

She is now focused not on her pain, but on her writing. And it's led to optimism - an outlook still new to her.

"I love writing," she said. "So I smile all the time. I'm laughing all the time. It's crazy."

Reporter Jamie Kelly can be reached at 523-5254 or at jkelly@missoulian.com.

 

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