Brain cancer, drug addiction, years in a refugee camp - none are challenges that the typical high school quarterback or class president usually faces.
On Thursday, six young men and women in the Colorado Springs area were presented with awards that honor those who might not usually find their names on trophies or certificates.
The first iInspire Awards, which recognize young people who overcome adversity and encourage others to do the same, went to Brian Armijo, 17; Kellen Fortune, 16; Annette Fresquez, 16; Alannah Garza, 16; Anya Nelsestuen, 11, and Afeworki Zeru, 18.
The awards, presented at the El Paso County commissioners' meeting, are administered by the Educating Children of Color Summit, a Colorado College organization, and the Minority Overrepresentation Committee of the 4th Judicial District, a group of judges, lawyers and others involved in the criminal justice system.
"It felt really good. It was like a gigantic compliment," said Nelsestuen, who has struggled for much of her life with juvenile arthritis that causes severe pain and swelling, sometimes limiting her ability to walk and attend school. "It's kind of hard to see yourself as an inspiration - it's hard to see yourself as something you don't think you are. But if somebody tells you you are, you start to be like, 'OK, maybe I kind of believe this.' "
Since receiving her diagnosis at age 6, Nelsestuen, a student at the Academy for Advanced and Creative Learning, told The Gazette that she's adapted to life with the ailment. An aspiring Pixar animator, she's designed stuffed animals that she now sells to raise money for the Arthritis Foundation.
Zeru, who attends Rampart High School, spent about four years living in a refugee camp in Ethiopia after leaving his parents in the East African country of Eritrea at the age of 11. When he reached America, he learned English using Rosetta Stone computer software and became an athlete, pursuing cross-country, track and field and soccer.
"Everyone has their own things that they truly care about," Zeru said after the meeting. "Everyone has their own challenges and their own needs. And if you truly care, you'll do whatever you want to with your life."
Armijo said he escaped an unhealthy home life at the age of 16. He once held two jobs, cramming in homework assignments on his breaks and sleeping in an office. He now lives with a school counselor employed at Odyssey Early College and Career Options, where he attends high school and participates in the junior ROTC program.
Garza was diagnosed with brain cancer when she was 10, she said. She's had a series of surgeries to remove brain tumors, undergone chemotherapy and is starting radiation treatment. She attends Rampart High, where she is on the cheerleading team.
"I started to realized, I'll get through this," Garza said of her diagnosis. "I was getting used to it. So I was like, 'I know I'll make it.' I just kept on believing that."
Fortune has overcome addiction after he was exposed to drugs and alcohol at a young age by other family members who relied on them. When he was expelled from his past school, he decided to get clean. He has surrounded himself with genuine friends and is improving academically at his new school, Rampart High.
Fresquez, a student at Odyssey, told The Gazette she was removed from her parents home at age 3 when her parents lost custody and spent years of her life being passed from family member to family member. After watching siblings and relatives struggle with addiction and resort to abuse, the youngest of seven brothers and sisters resolved to help other young people by spreading positivity. She's started an organization that provides backpacks filled with school supplies for those entering the foster care system.
Commissioners recognized the awardees with a proclamation.
"You guys are just at the beginning and you've made some phenomenally positive choices in your lives," Commissioner Peggy Littleton told them during the meeting. "You will be excellent leaders as you move forward in life, so continue on this path. I just commend you."
In addition to recognizing those who aren't usually in the spotlight, the awards were also intended to provide hope and encouragement in El Paso County, where youth suicides have soared in recent years.
To identify candidates for the award, roughly 400 surveys were distributed to local schools and organizations that serve children and teenagers, said Cara Nord, co-chair of the Minority Overrepresentation Committee, which received 24 nominations.
"It's really amazing to see the kids get recognition for just being some really tough kids," said Anya's mother, Beaty Nelsestuen, said after the meeting. "It's empowering for them to know that there's other kids who are having a hard time pushing through and doing amazing thing."