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Denair, Turlock students recognized for overcoming obstacles
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Cynthia Bermudez smiles after receiving recognition for persevering in school despite struggles associated with a traumatic brain injury. - photo by ANGELINA MARTIN/The Journal

Pitman High School senior Cynthia Bermudez is popular on campus not only for her infectious smile, but her positivity and perseverance in the classroom despite the many setbacks she’s faced in life.

On Tuesday morning, Bermudez and three other local students were honored during “Every Student Succeeding,” a county program that recognizes students who have excelled academically in the face of adversity.

“Let me tell you, what an amazing group of students we have here today,” Stanislaus County Superintendent of Schools Scott Kuykendall said. “…it will become obvious that when you’re hearing the stories of these 23 incredible students being celebrated this morning that they are all examples of what it is to courageously overcome hardships, persevere despite obstacles and illness, and ultimately show us the power and beauty of the human spirit.”

For 14 years, the Stanislaus Association of School Administrators charter and the Stanislaus County Office of Education have honored students like Bermudez who have succeeded against their challenges, gone beyond expectations or simply won the hearts of their teachers and staff through the “Every Student Succeeding” program.

Bermudez was your everyday teenager until a traumatic brain injury as the result of a bicycle accident some years ago left her with limited speech and mobility. When she came home from the hospital in July 2014, she could not walk or talk and had limited mobility on the left side of her body. Despite these struggles, Bermudez returned to school later that year. Now, she’s an active participant in choir and recently attended Winter Prom.

Since then, she has made monumental strides. She utilizes assisted technology to speak, but is able to say a few words, and can now walk up to 75 feet. During Tuesday’s event in Modesto, she celebrated receiving her “Every Student Succeeding” award with a celebratory fist bump.

“While Cynthia’s life has changed dramatically, she has dramatically changed the lives of everyone she meets thanks to her determined mother, who in turn thanks the incredible support team she has surrounding her daughter,” Stanislaus County Assistant Superintendent Susan Rich said.

Other students from Turlock Unified School District honored during the awards breakfast included Blake Bonander, a sixth grader from Julien Elementary School, and Destenee Hernandez, an eighth grader at Turlock Junior High School.

After losing his mother at a very young age, Bonander once again suffered a tremendous loss when his father was incarcerated the summer before his fifth grade year. Though Bonander has struggled emotionally with his circumstances, he continues to meet and surpass school standards and rarely misses a day of school. 

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Blake Bonander and Julien Elementary School principal Jenny Henderson receive applause during Tuesday’s “Every Student Succeeding” awards ceremony. - photo by ANGELINA MARTIN/The Journal

Bonander goes above and beyond at Julien, helping students in both the POD program and the school’s special education classrooms when he’s not busy playing on his Little League baseball team. In the future, he hopes to go to Yale University and become a defense attorney so that he can “support others going through a difficult time.”

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Destenee Hernandez makes her way down a row of handshakes to receive her award. - photo by ANGELINA MARTIN/The Journal

Hernandez too was involved in a traumatic accident in 2007 that changed her life forever. Though she’s been in and out of the hospital since then and underwent surgery in 2011, today, Hernandez is a happy, enthusiastic student at TJHS who the office staff calls “the morning sunshine.”

“Even though she faces many struggles in her life, they are difficult to notice because of her constant, positive demeanor,” Stanislaus ACSA Communications Specialist Claudia Vicino said. “She always appears excited to work, follows classroom routines without hesitation and is a very social and friendly girl who just doesn’t stop smiling.”

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Henry Johnson was also recognized Tuesday for his willingness to go above and beyond at Denair High School. - photo by ANGELINA MARTIN/The Journal

At Denair High School, sophomore Henry Johnson is known as a student who never backs away from a challenge, and that earned him recognition on Tuesday as well.

Born with Apert syndrome, a genetic disorder characterized by the premature fusion of certain skull bones, Johnson was originally placed in the county’s severe handicapped learning classroom at age three. By age five, he had worked himself out of that class and was placed in a moderate to severe class at Denair Elementary School.

Since then, Johnson has excelled in Denair Unified School District.

“When Henry began as a freshman at Denair High School, his support team was a bit nervous about his ability to learn at a high level, engage with peers and be able to live the full high school experience,” Vicino said. “But apparently, the adults were the only ones worried because Henry hit the ground running and hasn’t looked back.”

Today, Johnson manages the school’s coffee cart as part of his work study program — just one class out of his seven-period school day, which also includes biology, art design, history, English and math.

“Through his will, grit and perseverance, he is a succeeding student and entrepreneur,” Vicino said.