While many students take on the dual responsibilities of employment and schoolwork, not many support themselves entirely on their own. Even fewer hope to sponsor a third-world child when they have yet to cross the adult threshold.
Not for Coeur d’Alene High School’s Amy LeBaron, who was scheduled to graduate June 5. She’s been self-sufficient for a while now. Five years and counting, in fact.
Not only has the 18-year-old paid her own bills for half a decade, for everything from car insurance to cell phone payments to rent, she’s managed a full-time workload while maintaining a flawless grade point average of 4.06. In an assemblage of stand-out students, even LeBaron’s peers and teachers find her an exceptional self-starter.
“I’ve met many, many extraordinary students in my 10 years of teaching at Coeur d’Alene,” said Jill Carlson, LeBaron’s English teacher. “Amy is singular as far as her drive and her dedication to excellence. She is extraordinary among extraordinary students.”
LeBaron, a native of Chihuahua, Mexico, and one of 11 kids, has lived with her older sister and brother-in-law since deciding to move to the U.S. five years ago to pursue her ultimate goal: a degree from one of the country’s pre-eminent culinary institutions and a restaurant of her own. That mindset, remember, came from a then-middle school student willing to leave most of her family behind, including her mother, whom LeBaron said is her prime source of inspiration, for an education.
“It wasn’t easy, but I had a goal in life, which was to finish high school and go to college up here,” she said. “You just have to make sacrifices. I just never lost focus and finished school.”
After bouncing around the Western half of the U.S. while her primary caretakers followed construction jobs, LeBaron and her new family wound up in North Idaho three years ago. In order to support herself, she’s worked as a babysitter and most recently in the restaurant industry, where she’s learned the ropes as an aspiring chef while hitting the books late at night to keep her grades up.
“I always loved being in the kitchen. I remember when I was about 8 years old watching the Food Network. I realized that was my passion and that’s what I wanted to do in life,” she explained.
From an outsider’s perspective, LeBaron is a nothing short of exceptional.
“She’s so driven, she’s way beyond her years as far as responsibility,” said Lori Humphries, the counseling secretary at the high school. “She’s planning her whole life out on her own. It blows me away. She supports herself and pays for everything on her own.”
Even teaching LeBaron sometimes proved to be a challenge.
“She’s interested in the challenge, she seeks it out,” Carlson offered.
For example, she said, LeBaron finished her senior project on the restaurant business a semester early. The involved project, which combines a research paper, at least 15 hours of on-site job experience, and a 10-minute speech that’s judged by a panel of community members, usually takes the school year for each student to piece together.
On top of her school-related accomplishments and undertakings, such as tutoring underclassmen, the recent graduate is setting out on a bid close to her heart. This summer she’s planning on going around to various local businesses to encourage them to sponsor underprivileged kids from Africa, which she hopes to do herself.
“Education is important to me. I was given a chance and I want to help other kids who want to learn,” LeBaron said. “I know in Third World countries it’s hard to get an education, but there are lots of people who have the want, they just don’t have the how.”
That kind of consideration in a young person is a rarity, Carlson said.
“It was just remarkable that at that age she knew the sacrifices she had to make for an education, and she wanted to share the importance of an education with others,” she said.
LeBaron credits her mom and her upbringing on a Mexican orchard farm for her resolve.
“You always had to pull your weight, and I think that made me who I am today,” she said. “I think I get my drive from my mom, seeing all that she went through raising 11 kids. She always told me if you want something, the only person standing in the way is yourself.”
When LeBaron tells her story herself, however, it’s much simpler. She’s merely had to do what was necessary to meet her goals. She said she’s been lucky enough to have positive support from those around her.
“There were a number of people at Coeur d’Alene that I could go to, for whatever reason. That made it a lot easier to get through school,” she said.
That low-key attitude is typical of LeBaron, say those who know her.
“She’s almost self-deprecating, she’s modest to the extreme,” Carlson said.
When asked about LeBaron’s future, Carlson proclaimed, “If she ran for office, I would vote for her. I have absolute knowledge that she will be successful in whatever she intends to do – she won’t accept anything less.”
LeBaron said she plans on attending either Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Las Vegas, depending on how much scholarship money she is awarded, or Spokane Community College. Beyond that, she continued, it might be back to her hometown of Chihuahua to set up her own restaurant – traditional Mexican food with her own personal twist. “Eventually I want my own restaurant down there, so I can be closer to my family,” she said.
About the importance of an education, LeBaron offered her own experience to students struggling to make it through school. “It was hard, but I feel that it kept me on my game – it kept me focused. You have to make sacrifices to get what you want, and I did.”