At Julien Elementary School, first grader Bella Gonsalves is not only known around campus for her infectious smile and big hugs, but her admirable determination to continue going to school even after she was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year.
On Tuesday, Bella will be recognized during “Every Students Succeeding,” a county program that honors students who have succeeded despite challenges. Bella was nominated by her principal Angela Freeman, who said that she chose Bella based on her dedication to learning and “the best big hugs.”
“For a child who was going through and continues to monitor her health, she is spark of joy, love and kindness,” said Freeman. “Even though she was out of school for a while with her illness, she didn’t skip a beat. Her ambition to learn at just six years old amazed everyone.”
With an interest in exploring and learning, Bella started kindergarten in the Julien Elementary School Pod Program in August 2015. In her first year, her parents Helena and Blake Gonsalves said that she loved going to school so much that every morning she woke up with a smile on her face. She even developed a strong bond with her homegroup teacher Jill Kline.
“She’s really nice,” said Bella. “She worked with me even when I was sick.”
A few months later, Bella started to get sick so frequently that it became a cause of concern for her parents. With each doctor’s visit, her energy level continued to sink lower and lower, but she never wanted to miss a day of school.
On Jan. 12, Bella’s doctor sent her to get some blood work done, a move that was shortly followed by a trip to the Valley Children’s Hospital for further testing. Two days later, Bella was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia.
“One of the many hurdles Bella faced was not being able to go to school to learn and see her friends,” said Freeman. “She wasn’t able to return to school for at least 10 months. Her kindergarten year in school had come to an end way too soon.”
“I missed my friends,” added Bella.
Freeman said that Bella’s parents were concerned that while their daughter was getting the treatment she needed, she was falling further and further behind academically. However, as soon as Bella came home from the hospital, Kline visited her at her home to begin teaching again.
“It was an amazing feeling to get the support that we did from everyone at Julien school,” said her dad Blake.
When Bella started first grade this year, she received the same support from her new teacher, Dave Judish. Once she returned to campus in November, it didn’t take long for her to catch up to her peers academically.
“At first, all of us thought she wouldn’t have the stamina to make it through an entire day of school, but she has not had to be picked up early from school once,” said Freeman. “She will continue to get treatment for another year and a half and go to school while doing it.”
At just six years old, Bella said she is looking forward to walking her little brother Brayden to school when he starts kindergarten next year and is already thinking of her future, with plans to be a child life specialist when she grows up.
“It’s like a nurse, but it mostly plays with kids, like paint and draw,” explained Bella.
For 12 years, the Stanislaus Association of School Administrators charter, along with the Stanislaus County Office of Education, Mocse Credit Union and E. & J. Gallo Winery, have honored students like Bella who have succeeded despite challenges through the “Every Student Succeeding” program.
This year’s event will honor 24 local students from 14 local school districts who have succeed against challenges, gone beyond expectations or simply won the hearts of their teacher and other staff. At the end of the program, one student will be selected as the region nominee and receive a $500 scholarship. They will also participate in the state selection process.
Pitman High School student Jake Williams will also be honored on Tuesday after he was nominated by his principal Amy Curd for his “kind-hearted, hardworking” personality, as well as his ability to be a leader to his peers. She said that while Jake openly explains to others that he has autism, his teachers don’t see it as quite that simple as they said Jake’s peers benefit every day from his unique and thoughtful perspective.
“Winning this award is a huge honor,” said Jake. “Not only for being a kid with Asperger’s and ADD, but also for a kid who never expected to win an award like this. I just go through life trying to be any ordinary guy and doing what I do best, being me. I am mainstreamed at Pitman and it has been a wonderful school for me. I have had amazing teachers that always have my back.”
Curd said that Jake takes full advantage of college prep and general education classes at the high school, and that he can be caught walking into each of his classes with a smile on his face and a desire to learn. As one who doesn’t shy away from classrooms discussion, Curd said that Jake is always one of the first students to raise his hand and contribute. She added that Jake flourishes in the classroom when he can apply his own life experiences to the curriculum at hand and that he uses his ability to explain the intricacies of a concept verbally to overcome his difficulty with writing.
“For example, he recently created a poster about the carbon cycle that was simple and unfinished but his explanations during his presentation were clear and well thought out,” said Curd.
After taking his first drama class his sophomore year, Jake discovered his love for theatre as a regular contributor to the school’s different productions and as a newly-initiated thespian. Now in advanced drama, Jake has been involved in several productions, including the school’s annual Haunted House, Smoke Out play and rendition of “Singin’ in the Rain.” In addition to his time in the spotlight, Jake has also made a name for himself as an in-demand teaching assistant.
“Jake’s affable personality and desire to do his best also made him an excellent teaching assistant,” said Curd. “Two of his former teachers have requested him as a T.A. over the past two years and have appreciated his help in this role. He goes above and beyond to make each day a little brighter in those classrooms with the sharing of a daily quote.”