PORTLAND — Earning a high school diploma is a milestone for every graduate, but for some, like LeeAnn Brionez, it’s an extra-special accomplishment.
Brionez, who attends Deering High, has cerebral palsy, which affects her range of motion and speech.
In addition, she’s on her own, with no family willing or able to provide her a home.
For almost a year Brionez has been living at a residential treatment center operated by Spurwink, an organization specializing in behavioral health for kids and young adults.
Being at Spurwink has helped Brionez with many of the emotional issues that prevented her from being able to safely live in a home environment.
It’s also given Brionez stability and allowed her to successfully attend school and now graduate. She’s the first to admit that her anger and depression made it hard for anyone to care for her properly.
Brionez was born in Texas. Her father died when she was a baby; she was removed from her mother’s care at 11. That’s when she came to Maine to live with her mother’s brother and his wife.
Brionez attended Saco Middle School, but she had to leave her uncle’s home because, she said, “we didn’t get along, and I was hurt and angry and did terrible things.”
Natalie LaCourse, an educational technician at the school, and her husband, Bob, stepped in and offered to become Brionez’s guardians.
While Brionez said LaCourse is still like a mother to her, that home situation also didn’t work out.
Brionez said LaCourse “did a lot and tried to help me as much as she could,” but Brionez’s anger and jealousy over the attention LaCourse gave her own children made the living situation untenable.
Even so, Brionez said LaCourse plans to attend when she graduates with the rest of her class June 7 in a ceremony at Cross Insurance Arena.
The LaCourse family lived in Old Orchard Beach, and Brionez attended the local high school until she moved out. Once she got to Spurwink, the question became which area high school would be the best fit.
Brionez said with the help of her case manager, Kelly Bouchard, she chose Deering, which turned out to be an excellent choice.
“I’ve made tons of friends, got good grades and I really like all my teachers,” Brionez said. She’s also become a member of Natural Helpers and the Key Club.
Tracey Moore, Brionez’s guidance counselor, said while her “speech impediment requires her to take longer to voice what she wants to say … this young woman is very intelligent, deeply kind, immensely resilient and, quite honestly, a real inspiration to me.”
“Teachers love having LeeAnn in their classroom because she is a curious, active learner,” Moore added. “LeeAnn has a never-say-die work ethic that is particularly impressive. She does not allow her physical limitations to get in the way of her learning or her genuine joy of intellectual pursuits.”
Her grade point average is 92.5, which garners Brionez “a weighted rank in the top 25 percent of her class,” according to Moore.
Brionez said she is “really excited” to graduate. Although her immediate plans are a bit up in the air, her hope is to one day attend college to become a veterinary technician.
Bouchard said Brionez may always need “some level of support” for day-to-day living, but “ideally the goal is to allow her to live independently and support herself.”
She describes Brionez as “a very determined young lady, who always tries to find the positive in every situation.”
While at Spurwink, Bouchard said, Brionez has lived in “a very structured environment,” which focuses on “safety, building relationships and practicing the skills needed for adulthood.”
“Spurwink’s been good for me and helped me a lot,” Brionez added.
Her favorite subject is English, and, in her free time, Brionez most enjoys reading. While her living situation may not be the norm, she still does “typical teenage stuff,” like hanging out with friends, going to the movies and other activities.
“I’ve made a huge amount of progress in my life,” she said, “and I am grateful for all the help I’ve gotten.”
LeeAnn Brionez will graduate from Deering High School in Portland on June 7. Because of her love of animals, she hopes one day to be a veterinary technician.