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Dreaming of Harvard in a Habitat home


Forest Grove High student credits nonprofit for boosting her education

Gladys Lemus set new life goals after a ride on a MAX train a year ago. She was on her way to church and sat next to some travelers who were a bit lost. As they began to ask for directions and continued to converse, Lemus found she was chatting with representatives of Harvard University.

At that point in her life, the teen was simply thinking about finishing high school classes — but her ambitions changed that day. “They were telling me about the law enforcement studies they have there, how long the courses would be, and what my grade-point average needed to be in order to be accepted,” Lemus, a Forest Grove High School senior, said of her train companions. “They told me what I need to do in order to go there. They said I have a chance at Harvard.”

But long before Harvard appeared on her radar, Lemus’ life intersected with West Tuality Habitat for Humanity.

She was 9 years old when her family moved from Portland into a home in Forest Grove built by Habitat after her mother saw information about Habitat homes in the newspaper. “She told my step-dad [Bernardo Juarez] about it and he said, ‘What are the chances we are going to own a house?’ But, she never lost faith and we got the house.”

Families selected to receive a Habitat house are required to donate “sweat equity” to the project and help build homes for other families. It’s typically the adults who do the hammering and nailing, but Lemus recalls participating by doing cleanup and taking the workers food and drinks.

“I got really close to the people who were working on the house,” she said.

Advancing from Tom McCall Upper Elementary School to Neil Armstrong Middle School and, finally, to Forest Grove High, Lemus enrolled in classes that were more and more advanced, a trend that continues to this day. She credits Habitat and her home in Forest Grove for providing her with education opportunities and an excitement about her community.

“The teachers here actually show you that they care,” noted Lemus. “We go out and our neighbors talk to us. It’s more like a community.”

PE teacher Greg Evers said Lemur has exhibited a positive attitude in everything she does at FGHS. “Gladys is a fantastic kid, a joy to be around, [and] fun-loving,” he said. “She has a great sense of humor and [is] one of my favorites in class.”

For Lemus, who dreams of attending college, becoming an attorney is a new life goal. Former Forest Grove Mayor Richard Kidd, construction superintendent at West Tuality Habitat for Humanity, has introduced her to several local attorneys.

“They have told me about the obstacles they went through” to attain a law degree, Lemus said.

She is not the only family member who benefited from a fresh start in a new home. Christopher Lemus, 17, also gained educationally after the move. “My brother was behind on credits,” she said, but got connected with the after-school CREATE program at Centro Cultural in Cornelius, which helped him make up missing classes.

“Now he is going to be graduating with his class, on time.”