Editor’s note: This is the last of our “Grads with Grit” series about students who have overcome unusual challenges and hardships to graduate this spring.
Molly Sheehan-Visser was being treated for suicidal depression at a psychiatric hospital when a nurse grabbed her arm and made her look at the cuts she’d inflicted on herself.
“This isn’t you,” Molly remembers the nurse saying to her during treatment in what was her freshman year at Kenowa Hills High School. “You’re better than this. Your mom wouldn’t want this for you.”
The words hit her hard. One night three years earlier, Molly had argued with her mother and said she never wanted to speak to her again. A few hours later, her mother was dead at age 49.
Molly’s last, bitter, words haunted her. Maybe they’d pushed her mother over the precipice.
Her single mother’s death sent Molly into a tailspin of depression and self-abuse. She was chronically truant from school including about 100 absences her freshman year. Her home life was unstable and impoverished. “After my mom died, I just kind of gave up on life,” Molly reflects soberly.
But others did not give up on her. A teacher and school counselor helped get her out of a toxic environment and into foster care. Counseling helped her shake off her depression. By the end of her freshman year, she had found adoptive parents and a determination to do what no one else in her family had done: graduate.
Today, she graduated not only from Kenowa Hills but also from the Criminal Justice program of Kent Career Tech Center. She intends to become a police officer.
“I have it good now,” Molly says with a smile. But she quickly adds, “I’m not gonna lie, it’s been hard.”
Patience and Perseverance Pay Off
A teacher who has known Molly since kindergarten knows just how hard it’s been. Carie Wojtas said that growing up Molly missed a lot of school, struggled academically and was socially withdrawn. Today, she is flourishing and “beaming with confidence,” Wojtas says.
“She’s got goals and ambitions,” says Wojtas, who also had Molly for physical education in high school. “When I knew her when she was younger I never would have thought that would have been possible, but her resilience has shone through.”
Finding a stable home life has been a big factor in her turnaround, Wojtas said. Molly was placed with foster parents Tim and Pat Visser on the last day of her freshman year. In her junior year they adopted her. “Now she’s got supportive parents and the confidence she needs to realize she can do anything,” Wojtas adds.
That realization only came after a lot of hard work. When Molly arrived at the Visser home she had earned only half a credit from her entire freshman year. But by going to summer school for two years and taking extra classes online, she was able to earn four years’ worth of credit in three.
Tim Visser credits her perseverance and patience, noting that by the time she came to their home she already had decided to change her ways.
“She attained the biggest goal she had in her life,” Visser says. “She was very determined to succeed. To her, ‘succeed’ included graduating from high school.”
Molly’s determination comes through when she sums up her goals. “I justwant to do better in my life, instead of dwelling in the past and saying ‘poor me.’ That was me before, but it’s not me now.”
Officer’s Kindness Makes an Impact
Molly discusses the “before” period of her life with disarming candor. She speaks of a troubled home life, including her mother being chronically ill with asthma and other serious ailments. Molly often was in the care of a family friend along with an older brother and sister. Home was sometimes an upsetting place for a little girl, Molly says.
She remembers hiding behind a couch at a party until a police officer came to break up the drunken ruckus. The officer’s reassuring kindness to her planted the seed for her interest in police work, she says: “Ever since then, I wanted to do that for other kids, so they didn’t have to be scared.”
Life got more complicated after her mother’s death in 2008, when Molly was under legal guardianship of the family friend. Her grandparents died and her sister had a baby, whom Molly helped care for when she should have been in school. Molly says she sank into depression and started cutting herself, adding, “I didn’t see the point of life, basically.”
It was then that Carie Wojtas and a school counselor intervened to get Molly the help she needed. She was placed in Forest View Hospital, where the nurse’s tough talk and counseling began to pull her out of depression. Child Protective Services removed her from the home and placed her in the KidsFirst! emergency shelter for abused and neglected children.
From there she went into foster care, leading her within months to the Vissers. Says Molly, “I’m so thankful that I met them.”
Final Push to Graduate
The Vissers proved to be a good fit, as was their church, Grand Rapids International Fellowship. Molly has gone on mission trips to the Dominican Republic, Africa and, this spring, to Ecuador, where she helped build a church and school, and played soccer with local kids.
“It was just an amazing experience,” Molly says. “I’m so grateful I can do that stuff now.”
She has stayed in touch with her sister and tries to be a good role model for her nephew. She accepts her troubled childhood as a necessary step to a better life, saying, “If I didn’t go through all this, I wouldn’t be the person I am today.”
She found her career calling in the Tech Center’s Criminal Justice program, thriving on the camaraderie and the adrenaline rush of simulated busts and searches. In 2011, she attended a Michigan State Police summer academy and earned a $500 college scholarship. She will attend Grand Rapids Community College this fall and hopes to become a state trooper.
First, though, she had to make a final push to pass a math class. With one-on-one help from two teachers, she passed – but not in time for commencement with the rest of her class.
However, she had earlier participated in a moving graduation ceremony from the Criminal Justice program. With her fellow graduates, she stood at attention, saluted the flag and observed a moment of silence in honor of fallen police officers.
“I just felt right being in that place,” Molly recalls. “It felt like I belonged there. So it’s pretty cool.”