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Student overcomes loss of teacher, friend
Every student-Denair
Denair High School senior Leina Mansilla has overcome tremendous tragedy to become a role model for her fellow students. Mansilla serves as the student body representative on the Denair Unified School District Board of Trustees. - photo by JONATHAN MCCORKELL / The Journal

For most high school seniors the start of their final year on campus is a time of excitement and determination for meeting their goal of graduation. For Denair High School senior Leina Mansilla the start of her senior year was a time of tragedy and confusion. 

Leina, like many students had a favorite teacher. A teacher she was so close to that she referred to him as her “grandpa.” Her teacher, Thomas Perez, served as an inspiration, confidant and motivator for Leina. But a week before school started Perez passed away, leaving a gaping hole and sadness in Leina’s young life. Her mentor was gone.

Just a few days later one of her closest friends, Evan Sousa, who spoke at Perez’s memorial on campus, passed away in an automobile accident.

These tragic moments led Leina into a state of depression, but Leina took the words and inspiration of her lost mentor and close friend to recommit herself to life and living it to the best of her ability.

Leina is now the FFA president at Denair and she serves as the Board of Trustees student body representative.

Recently Leina was honored, along with several other area students, by local politicians and leaders during the “Every Student Succeeding” program held in Modesto. Every Student Succeeding honors students who have overcome and succeeded against challenges, have gone beyond expectations and have won the hearts of their teachers and staff. The honor is given by the Association of School Administrators Stanislaus Charter, the County Office of Education, Mosce Credit Union and Gallo Winery.

Denair Principal Steve Doerksen, who nominated Leina for the honor, had high praise for the resilient student.

“She’s a special young lady; it was hard for her to go through that, she was really close with Mr. Perez. She’s doing really well now and she is the kind of person who you root for,” said Doerksen. Agriculture Advisor Jonathan Merriam also nominated Leina.

In her classes she maintains a 3.8 grade point average and she was just accepted to California State University, Sacramento where she plans to major in psychology.

“We were hoping she’d become an ag teacher,” joked Doerksen. “When she’s got a goal she goes for it and I’m sure whatever she chooses she’ll make it happen.”

Leina attributes her success to her friend and mentor.

“I was depressed, but then I turned it around because I realized that they would have wanted me to succeed in life, they would have pushed me. After what happened I opened my eyes and realized that life is short; it is important that I do the most I can with my life,” said Leina.

In her free time Leina enjoys reading and her favorite class is agriculture.

“I am keeping my options open, I want to study psychology because I think it would be interesting to understand and learn why people make the decisions they make and act the way they act,” she said.

To contact Jonathan McCorkell, e-mail or call 634-9141 ext. 2015.