Chelsea VanSchoonhoven themed her graduation address, “Don’t let adversity keep you from accomplishing what you want in life.”
This is not just an inspiring topic. For VanSchoonhoven, whose determination helped her overcome homelessness to graduate with honors, it has been a personal journey.
“You can do anything you set your mind to,” she said. “If I can overcome, they can too.”
The Contract Based Education student is 17.
VanSchoonhoven’s mother divorced her father when she was a baby. A single parent with three girls, her mother worked multiple jobs to make ends meet.
VanSchoonhoven, the youngest of the sisters, recalls the family living with her grandparents when she was young. She has special memories of reading with her grandfather.
“I would sit on his lap and read with him,” VanSchoonhoven said. “We would read my favorite book, ‘Where the Wild Things Are.’ I loved that book.”
Her grandfather died when she was in third grade. Her mother decided to move to Oregon, but returned to Spokane one year later. After returning, the family moved around often.
“I bounced around to (five) different elementary schools,” VanSchoonhoven said. “It was hard.”
The family continued to move from place to place, eventually landing in Billings, for a few months. They returned to the Spokane area during her freshman year with no place to stay and no income.
VanSchoonhoven’s mom found a job in the Grand Coulee area that April, leaving her girls in Spokane to stay with friends or relatives.
“I was homeless most of the time,” she said. “I didn’t know where I would be every night.”
For more than four months VanSchoonhoven went from one home to the next, seeing her mom only a few times that summer.
“Knowing she was trying to get a stable environment kept me strong,” VanSchoonhoven said. “Every day I told myself I’m going to be with my mom. I was trying to keep positive.”
Reunited with her mother and sister in September, they moved to Spokane’s North Side.
VanSchoonhoven believes the adversity helped her become stronger personally, and laid the foundation for her wanting a better future for herself.
“I know a lot of people who’ve been homeless and resorted to drugs or alcohol,” VanSchoonhoven said. “I wanted to be better than that. I wanted to grow, not fall behind.”
VanSchoonhoven dedicated herself to her studies and set a goal to graduate.
VanSchoonhoven became a co-chairman of the Leadership Class. She took it her sophomore year, based on the encouragement of adviser Sherri Wagemann. As part of the class, she volunteers at Second Harvest Food Bank four times a year.
As a junior, VanSchoonhoven was elected the alternative high school senior representative for the West Valley School Board. She earned the spot by competing against students from CBE, RiverCity Leadership Academy and Spokane Valley High School.
“When she joined my Leadership Class two years ago, and began to get involved, she became a civic thinker – confident and outspoken,” Wagemann said. “Now she is an ambassador who expresses student views and helps to make important decisions that affect the community. I am very proud of her.”
She’s also active within her school. For the past two years VanSchoonhoven has managed the underclassmen photos for the student yearbook.
“Keeping track of all of this is a huge job,” yearbook adviser Cheri Osmuss said. “Her work ethic is incredible.”
VanSchoonhoven hopes to teach high school English. She plans to attend Spokane Community College in the fall, before transferring to Eastern Washington University to pursue a degree in education.