REDWOOD CITY (CBS SF) — Sabrina Villanueva Avalos does not look like someone who was homeless, not that long ago. But, during her first year at Sequoia High in Redwood City, she was.
So, it says something about her determination that she not only managed to stay in school, but to remain in the academically rigorous International Baccalaureate program, which includes college level work.
Aside from a few friends, she kept her homelessness a secret at school. In fact, her peers and teachers were shocked when Sabrina told her of her housing situation. “It gave them a lot of perspective,” says Kim Vinh, her journalism teacher.
It all started during the recession, when Sabrina’s mom was laid off from two jobs. They could no longer make rent, so they were evicted. Sabrina describes the situation as “a giant slap in the face. I think our first reaction was we have nowhere to go, because we didn’t.” They moved around a lot. “We went from motels to shelters. I went to friends houses, where me and my mom were separated for months,” she says.
Then the tremors started. Her mom was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. She says, “It was really hard to focus on what was important because everything was important and everything was so big and I have a sick mom and I don’t know where I’m gonna (sic) go home to today, and then I have homework and school and grades.”
“I think the level of difficulty was the most extreme challenge anyone can go through,” says teacher, Kim Vinh. “To not have a stable home, to not have parents who take care of you when things go wrong. Students make a lot of mistakes and usually there are lots of people to help you get back up on your feet. I think Sabrina got back on her feet and actually carried someone else on her own… It’s really extraordinary.”
One day, they finally got a housing voucher. But that very same day, her mom got another call from the doctor. She had breast cancer. It was early stage, but nevertheless, traumatic. “I don’t know what I would do if I lost her,” says Sabrina. “But everyday she just kept saying, you know you’re not going to lose me. I’m going to be fine. I’m going to beat this. We’re going to beat everything else and I think the fat that is going to be able to say that after everything going on, it’s just kind of amazing.
Sabrina’s mom is the one who told her to focus on her education. “She is probably all of the reason I did not give up,” says Sabrina. “I kept going for her and I kept going for my future.
After surgery and follow up treatments, her mom is in remission now. This fall, Sabrina will be the first in her family to go to college. “I could do so many great things,” she says. “Why let this downfall ruin everything that I could be.”