Just over a year ago, Breanna Mendoza was unsure if she would ever graduate eighth grade.
“I didn’t care about grades and was just really done with everything,” said Breanna. “It’s something that I never thought I would really do because with everything that had happened, I just really didn’t care about it and I didn’t think I was going to make it to then.”
Breanna originally made headlines when her parents pulled her out of Dutcher Middle School after the eighth grader became the target of a number of bullying situations, including name-calling and physical threats via social media due to her facial deformity, Goldenhar Syndrome.
Goldenhar Syndrome is a congenital birth defect which involves deformities of the face and in Breanna’s case, the syndrome exclusively affects her ear, eye and jaw on the right side of her face.
According to Wendy Mendoza, Breanna’s mother, if a bully were to actually follow through with these threats and hit Breanna on the jaw, it could potentially cut off her airway.
“She can’t breathe, so this is a very dangerous situation,” said Wendy in April of last year. “It’s not like a typical bullied child where when they get bullied or picked on, they get hurt. Her life is threatened at that point.”
After leaving Dutcher, Breanna received an outpouring of community support, including one family that volunteered to pay for her to attend Turlock Christian Junior High School. Just one year later, Breanna is now graduating from Turlock Christian and preparing to enter high school, happier than ever before.
“It feels so amazing,” said Breanna. “Seeing the graduation gown and seeing it come together, it’s something that you work so hard for and are so excited for because you’re going to graduate with people that are around you that you’re going to be with for the next four years.”
Those same people surrounding Breanna at graduation are a big part of the reason she now goes to school with a smile on her face every day, rather than being fearful of bullies. Turlock Christian is like a family, she said, and waking up for class is cause for celebration.
“It’s awesome to come to school now,” said Breanna. “I’m really excited because I always can’t wait to hang out with my friends.”
Fellow eighth graders Jenna Benton and Jyllian Knight befriended Breanna immediately upon her arrival to Turlock Christian.
“We didn’t want to make her feel the same way that she felt at Dutcher,” said Benton. “We wanted to make this a more positive experience for her so she could get a better education and have better friends.”
According to Knight, when students at Turlock Christian heard that Breanna would be attending their school, a group of them got together at Lisa’s Cookie Jar to meet her. Their friendship grew from there, with Knight and Breanna working together on their Bible project and spending time together at school. When Knight and Benton heard of the bullying Breanna previously had faced at Dutcher, it was difficult to understand.
“It proves that they never got to know her,” said Benton. “If they got to know her they would know that she’s really sweet and doesn’t deserve anything she got.”
Since starting school at Turlock Christian, Breanna has improved her reading skills by several grade levels. She has also advanced from doing simple multiplication and division to now taking pre-algebra classes, said her mother. Both Wendy and Breanna credit the success to the teachers at Turlock Christian and their desire for each student to do well.
“The teachers here really love to get in your life and involve you in theirs,” said Breanna. “They really make it like a real friendship and it’s really awesome to get to know them.”
Two of those instructors, eighth grade English teacher Kevin David and eighth grade Bible teacher Nicole Rodrigues, shared what a joy Breanna has been in the classroom over the past year.
“She is outgoing and encouraging, but she’s also a very enthusiastic learner,” said David. “She’s also very concerned about her grades and keeping up with her work.”
At Dutcher, Breanna couldn’t focus on school as much as she wanted to because of bullying. She says the family-like atmosphere at Turlock Christian has helped her refocus on her grades.
“As soon as I heard her story I thought, ‘Oh, she needs to come to TC. She needs to come here and let us love on her,’” said Rodrigues. “Now she works really hard and doesn’t miss a beat. She’s really focused and works really hard in class.”
David intentionally sat Breanna in the front of his classroom when she first arrived at Turlock Christian, unsure of how well she would be received in the class. But, he said, students like Benton and Knight took her under their wings and helped her adjust.
“It hasn’t been hard to welcome Breanna,” said Benton. “She’s just like all of us. She’s a really good friend.”
Now, thanks to her new friends and teacher, Breanna is flourishing at Turlock Christian.
“When Breanna first arrived, she was a rosebud,” said David. “Now, she’s fully blossomed.”
Breanna and her friends spend their time hanging out, holding study sessions and listening to music. When she’s not finishing homework, Breanna also enjoys going to the school’s football and basketball games.
“They’ve been so welcoming and they’ve been there for me one hundred percent,” said Breanna.
Since overcoming bullying, Breanna has learned to conquer her fears. The ordeal has given her a new outlook on life, she said, and she now pays more attention to the people she surrounds herself with.
“If you have positive people around you you’re going to be more positive, and if you have negative people around you, you’ll be more negative,” said Breanna. “Turlock Christian helped me grow out of what I was afraid of and now I actually trust a lot of people here. It’s a good environment for me.”
Breanna welcomes the media attention that she has received because it has allowed her to help others who have been or are going through a situation similar to hers. Though she doesn’t keep in touch with many of her old classmates from Dutcher, there are several who have reached out to her for advice on how to handle bullying.
“Just stick it out and you’re going to make it through,” Breanna told them. “It’s going to make you stronger, you’re going to come out braver and you’re going to learn a lot of things.”