Eugene Johnson knows all about the road less traveled. He's lived it every day for the last several years.
Johnson, 19, was among 27 students who graduated from the Supporting Kids in Independent Living program last Thursday. His life has been an almost never-ending series of challenges, and in some cases, heartbreak.
The SKIL program helps kids living on their own through high school by providing them whatever they need to finish, whether it be a reliable ride to school or presentable clothes.
Johnson lived with his mom until he was 9. Then he went into state Department of Human Services custody for two years, before being reunited with his father after his father got out of jail.
When he was 15 his dad said he was dropping him off at a friend's house and he'd return in a few days. He hasn't seen him since. Today, Johnson lives with a friend.
“My spirit was broken for a long time,” Johnson said. “I didn't want to talk to adults because of what my dad did. Every day I would be so mad.”
The feeling of having nobody else in the world has been his biggest struggle. Johnson had to get his birth certificate and Social Security number. He lives with a friend, but it's been awhile since he's had a place that he can call home, that is truly his own.
“It makes you feel isolated and it makes you want to give up on everything, to be honest,” he said.
But those feelings have faded somewhat. He will graduate from Capitol Hill High School and will attend the University of Central Oklahoma to study music production in the fall. His life is coming together.
“SKIL changed all of that for me,” he said. “I almost failed my junior year because I was absent so much but I started going to school and I my grades came up. My future started to seem like something to look forward to.”
Chelsea Cobb and Roy Gutierrez, both 18, found themselves in similar situations. Gutierrez's parents were separated when his mom returned to Mexico to care for his ailing grandmother. He didn't want to go, so he found himself alone in Oklahoma City.
“The separation from family is the toughest thing to go through,” Gutierrez said. “You give up or try harder in life so you can continue on and move on. It's a disadvantage, but also a motivator.”
He will graduate from the Classen School of Advanced Studies as a valedictorian. He will attend the University of Oklahoma on a ballet scholarship in the fall. He, like the others, is the first in their family to graduate from high school and attend college.
“I think this experience has helped me be more prepared for college because I've already lived on my own,” he said.
Cobb moved out on her own at 16 because of a rough home life that saw her and her family move around the country. They would settle in for awhile, and then move when they lost their home. She's graduating from Capitol Hill High School.
“I moved out and got a taste of the world and it was hard,” she said. “They always told me when you get out into the world how tough it is. It slaps you in the face.”
Today Cobb is self assured and outgoing. She plans to attend Oklahoma City Community College and plans to pursue a career in the medical field eventually. She said one of the toughest parts of the last two years of her life has been being different from other teens. Initially, some think she's lucky to have so much freedom, but they soon realize that it's an often difficult existence.
“It's hard because you're not really normal,” she said. “You don't get to go out with your friends like normal kids do. When they have a problem they can go home to their mom and dad. We're on our own.”
At the graduation program Thursday morning, Mallory Cantrell had an ever-present smile. She serves as the program director for SKIL. In particular, she has worked closely with Cobb and Johnson over the last several years. For her, graduation is as big of a celebration as it is for the students.
Cantrell has been the one who has nudged them along the way by making sure they're going to school, by either providing transportation or a pep talk. When Cobb's living arrangement with a friend fell apart, Cantrell put her up in a hotel for a night until she could find another place to live.
“Anyone that they know and have in their life would expect them to give up and that would be perfectly OK,” she said. “The fact they've overcome and become so resilient in getting to this point is incredible.”