The best way to see how far Cassandra Heath has come is to listen to her as she nears the finish line.
Heath, a senior at the East Valley Parent Partnership, was in foster care for the first five years of her life before she was adopted by Bill and Ruth Short. Several years later, after her behavioral and academic issues were heightened, she was diagnosed with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, a term that encompasses the range of effects that can occur in an individual whose mother drank alcohol during pregnancy.
And now? She’s completing a two-year pre-veterinary assisting program at Newtech Skill Center and hopes eventually to become a police canine trainer.
“I had a lot of excuses that I could have used to quit,” Heath said recently. “Because of FASD, I’ve always had memory problems and struggled in math. When I was 14 or 15, I started running away and acting out, and my parents wanted clarification, so we went to a psychologist who gave us that diagnosis.
“It just confirmed what we already suspected, and I honestly don’t remember having any anger about the diagnosis. Once I knew about it, I did extensive research because it’s not something that a lot people know about. And I learned that many kids on the spectrum have it way worse than me.
“My adoptive parents stuck with me through it all. When I was 16, almost 17, I realized that I couldn’t run away from things forever. I knew what was going on with me and that I could manage it with help from my parents and teachers.”
Heath has been home-schooled since first grade, but said even that was hard, especially because of math. When her mother got connected with EVPP, she was able to get into an individualized education program, which helped her to get tutoring in areas where she needed it. She continued to home-school while attending Newtech.
“I can’t explain how hard she’s worked to be successful,” Ruth Short said. “Cassie’s attention issues made school very difficult, but she’s always read really well, and when we started EVPP, everything has really started coming together.”
Heath also credits EVPP with helping her to turn things around: “The teachers there don’t let you give up easily, and they helped me to see my worth in the world. And at Skill Center, Michelle Burdick did the same thing.”
The veterinary assisting program, directed by Burdick, was originally Heath’s second choice at Newtech, but it turned out for the best, and she hopes to work in a veterinary clinic for a few years to improve her understanding of canine anatomy and physiology as she prepares for the next steps in her career.
“What I’ve learned in the last couple years is that your disabilities don’t define you,” she said. “Everyone has expectations, their own and those that other people set for them. My goal is to surpass every expectation. I still have struggles, but I’m learning to manage them. And now, I feel like I’m flying toward the finish line!”