Rachel Thornton revels in the outdoors.
She and her family moved to tiny Yak, Montana, from bustling California, when she was 8 years old.
“We lived on my aunt and uncle’s ranch,” she recalled. “My dad loved Montana.”
He was a registered nurse and quickly found work in nearby Libby.
Their idyllic life took a sudden turn when her father was diagnosed with cancer when she was 13. The family had to leave the ranch and move into Libby to be closer to the hospital.
“That was really hard,” Thornton said. “I loved living across the road from my aunt and uncle.”
But much harder times were in store as her father’s health continued to decline. The school she attended was across the river from the hospital. One day, Thornton heard a helicopter leaving the hospital. She knew that meant someone gravely ill was being transported to Kalispell. What she didn’t know was that it was her dad.
He’d been too ill to make a scheduled appointment, and his wife insisted on driving him to the hospital. Once there, they discovered he was suffering sepsis and needed urgent intervention.
“My mom was a superhero for him,” Thornton said.
When she walked into the hospital room in Kalispell and saw her father hooked up to all kinds of tubes and wires, she finally realized he might not come home.
She said the first thing that came to her mind. “Who’s going to help me with my Pinewood Derby car?”
Her mom, sister and other family members chuckled. It was the last moment of levity they’d have for a long time.
“My dad died Oct. 5, 2018, right before my 14th birthday,” said Thornton.
The loss proved incredibly painful.
“A lot of people didn’t understand,” she said. “One kid compared it to the loss of her dog. Another girl said it was like when she lost her great-grandfather. But to us, it was a really big deal. He was a dad, a spouse, a brother …”
She came to Upper Columbia Academy, a Seventh-day Adventist boarding school located in Spangle, Washington, shortly after her father’s death. There she found the structure and support she needed as she adjusted to life without her dad.
At UCA she plunged into student life, excelling in horsemanship and music.
“My dad really supported us musically,” said Thornton.
Staff member Matthew Maniscalco enjoyed watching this student sing.
“She’s part of our elite choral group (Choraliers) who travel and perform,” he said.
When the Choraliers performed at the Fox Theatre, Thornton looked up to see her mom, alone, in the balcony.
“That hurt,” she said. “Dad would have been so proud.”
Despite her loss, she quickly found her place at UCA.
“She’s an incredible, bright cheerful person,” said Maniscalco. “The kind of kid you want to have around.”
Vice Principal Charles Hartman agreed.
“Her positivity is infectious,” he said. “She sets her own path.”
Thornton excelled in leadership and was an integral part of the senior recognition program and dessert auction that raised funds for the senior class trip.
“That auction raised about $20,000,” Maniscalco said.
The teen admitted procuring enough dessert offerings proved challenging, but she downplays her role.
“It made me feel helpful,” she said. “UCA taught me a lot of leadership skills.”
She supervised the morning cafeteria shift and said that experience has translated into a summer job at Camp Mivoden at Hayden Lake.
“She’s a go-getter,” said Maniscalco. “She’s already got her college classes lined up.”
Indeed, Thornton has enrolled at Flathead Valley Community College and plans to earn an associate degree in radiology, and then study to be an ultrasound technician.
“I’d like to follow after my dad in the medical field and help and serve people,” she said.
As graduation approaches, she still keenly feels her father’s absence.
“June 5 (graduation) will be hard for me because he won’t be there,” she said. “I’m very grateful for what he was able to teach me in the time he was around – I just wish I had him longer.”