When Heather was 13 years old, she moved in with her cousins Brian and Lisa. They weren’t close cousins, but Brian and Lisa knew Heather needed somewhere safe to land, and they were happy to provide a home where she would be safe and loved.
Before Brian and Lisa, Heather had been in an abusive household where she was neglected—including educational neglect; she was kept out of school throughout most of elementary and some middle school.
Heather craved opportunities and worked hard, but trauma and neglect had taken their toll. She was behind in every subject, especially math, so Lisa enrolled her in a private middle school where she got more attention and accommodation to try to catch up on her education.
Lisa knew Deana Cummings because they went to church together, plus their kids were about the same age. She started talking to Deana about Heather’s schooling—she had been placed two grades below the standard for her age in an effort to fill in the learning gaps. As a FAST Advocate with Legal Aid of WV, Deana recognized right away that she might be able to help Heather.
“I knew Deana, so I trusted her,” says Lisa. “During Heather’s time in private school, they were applying accommodations that were helping a lot, but things changed when she transitioned to public high school.”
Deana worked with Heather and her high school to set up an IEP (individualized education plan) based on her needs. Heather mentioned during one of her IEP meetings that she would like to graduate at the same time as her same aged peers. The school administrator suggested they look into the Option Pathway (Pathways) program for Heather.
Pathways was created to help at-risk students that are at least one year behind their classmates to earn their high school diploma, and Heather’s IEP case manager helped coordinate her acceptance into the program.
“We were all invested in Heather and her success,” says Deana. “The case manager understood Heather’s needs and how to change and adapt to achieve her ultimate goal of graduating on time.”
In addition to classwork accommodations, Heather had options for her physical and mental health. She suffered from pseudo-seizures brought on by stress and anxiety, but her IEP allowed her to spend time in designated safe spaces when she felt overwhelmed. She was also allowed to have lunch with one of her favorite teachers instead of the cafeteria, which was a minefield for her mental health.
“I was going through a court case at the time, and sometimes other kids would ask me questions about it. That made me uncomfortable,” says Heather. Deana, her case manager, and the high school administration made sure all of Heather’s teachers had eyes and ears on her in case other students crossed boundaries. “I feel like once Deana got involved, I could get more out of school because I felt safe.”
By the time the COVID pandemic struck in 2020, Heather’s educational support structure was so strong that she excelled through the turbulence.
“She was so focused on her goals,” says Lisa. “Even when my other kids hadn’t done their homework, Heather’s was done. She worked hard and stayed dedicated.”
In March 2022, Heather was mere months away from graduating on time; she was about to complete a major milestone when things looked like they might fall apart. She was required to pass a set of testing for Pathways in order graduate but was informed the district had not received the final tests and did not know when they would arrive.
Deana jumped in immediately.
“I requested all their documentation and policies,” says Deana. “I was gathering everything I needed to file a complaint. I was going to make sure that Heather reached her goal to graduate on time no matter what. After I started asking questions, Heather was told she could take pre-tests that could stand in for the final test. Heather passed them all and was able to graduate on time.”
Just last month, in May, Heather officially graduated high school alongside her peers on time—well, almost.
The ceremony got delayed for rain.
“My goals were to make friends—I did that: made lots of friends—and to work hard to graduate on time. I was kind of nervous to walk on-stage in front of all those people,” says Heather. “My new goal is to get into the Penn Foster Vet Tech program.”
“Deana is a bulldog when it comes for advocating for people who need help, have struggles, and need accommodations,” Lisa says. “Special education needs are widespread, and the more people who know about advocates like Deana, the more people can get help. Kids might be timid to advocate for themselves, but after they’ve worked with Deana, I’ve seen them get the courage to stand up for themselves in a room full of adults.”
Deana watched Heather walk across the stage at graduation via livestream from California while vacationing with family and even got Heather a graduation card and gift.
“I did my job, sure, but Heather is the hero of this story,” says Deana. “We helped give her the tools to get there, but she did the work.
“Sometimes I wish I didn’t have a job and students could get what they needed without advocacy, but even if they mean well, adults have a tendency to think they know better, and that’s not always true. I give children a voice because they have a lot to say if we as adults will take the time to stop and listen.”
Legal Aid of WV’s FAST Program (Family Advocacy, Support, and Training) is a statewide parent and youth network that engages families in the planning, management, and evaluation of their child’s mental health treatment and service needs. FAST Advocates provide special education and mental health services to children across all 55 WV counties. Learn more by visiting our FAST webpage or their Facebook page.