By Lindsey Ziliak
Tribune staff writer
When Kaleil Rucker started high school, all he cared about was picking his next fight.
He would get in trouble and inevitably end up in the principal’s office at Taylor High School.
One day he was sent to the office — in trouble, of course — and he had a “complete meltdown.”
It ended with him running out of the school and the assistant principal and principal chasing him through Center.
Rucker was eventually arrested and expelled from school. In the months that followed, he was arrested several more times.
“I was arrested and let out, arrested and let out,” he said. “Then I was arrested, and I stayed. I seen how hard it was on my mom, on my family. I didn’t want to do that to them anymore.”
So Rucker vowed to turn his life around. And he did.
He was allowed back into Taylor High School. He brought his grades up. He became a stellar athlete — running track, playing football and wrestling for the first time in his life. Rucker became a role model to other student athletes.
The Taylor High School student was among 11 students in Howard County recognized Thursday at the 22nd Turnaround Achievement Breakfast.
“This is a big deal,” Eastern High School graduate Roy Hufford told those students being honored. “The changes you made to earn this will influence the rest of your life. It’s such a big deal that if someone congratulated you for turning your life around every day for the rest of your life, it wouldn’t be enough.”
Hufford would know. He received a Turnaround award in 1997.
His life was a mess in the years leading up to the award, though.
He said his parents divorced, which led to instability and extreme poverty. His mother paraded boyfriends in and out of his life. And she felt bad about it, so she set no boundaries for her son.
Hufford partied his way into a juvenile facility. When he got out, he was placed in foster care.
At some point, he decided he wanted more. He pushed himself and got better grades.
He graduated from high school. Then he graduated from college — putting him in the 3 percent of foster children who earn both degrees.
Hufford embarked on a career in elementary education. He’s now the principal at an impoverished school in Goshen.
He said he gets to work with kids like him.
“They have stories that mirror my own of poverty and low achievement,” he said.
Western Middle School student Nikki Wainwright said she was never a really bad kid. But she got mixed up with some bad people, always hanging out with older people.
“I was always involved in the drama that went on,” she said. “I was in the office more than I should have been.”
Eventually, her best friend’s mom barred her from seeing her best friend. She decided then that she wanted a change.
“I realize how easy it is to ruin your reputation,” she said. “I’m much happier now.”
Eastern High School senior Matthew Hicks was always kind and agreeable. But he had no motivation in high school. He said he partied and didn’t focus on his school work.
By the end of his freshman year, he had received only one credit. That was in PE.
Then he got a wakeup call, Eastern teacher John Vanmatre said.
“A very close friend of his died,” Vanmatre said. “He slipped into a diabetic coma after a night of drinking and forgetting to take his medicine.”
Hicks took that moment to turn his life around, the teacher said.
Hufford encouraged the students to share their stories and be an inspiration for other struggling kids. He told them to look for ways to bring their stories up.
He said every one of them have a new lease on life, and they need to use it.
Hufford added one thing before he left the stage Thursday. He quoted Dr. Seuss for the kids.
“You have brains in your head,” he said. “You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. ... And will you succeed? Yes. You will, indeed. ... Kid, you’ll move mountains. So be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray or Mordecai Ali Van Allen O’Shea, you’re off to great places. Today is your day. Your mountain is waiting. So get on your way.”
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