Class of 2017: Scarborough senior is also a caregiver

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SCARBOROUGH — High school senior Sigourney Di Risi Pena wants to become president of the United States.

While that may be notable, Pena isn’t an average high school senior in another way, too: she is a medically trained caregiver for her grandfather – a cancer survivor who suffered a traumatic fall and was left a quadriplegic. 

When Pena is not in school, working or volunteering, she is at home helping her mother, Sonja Di Risi, take care of Donald De Rice. Pena said among other health challenges, De Rice uses a feeding tube, requires respiratory care and has a tracheostomy tube.

The women wake every two hours during the night to turn him to prevent bedsores; he must be turned hourly during the day. Despite his condition, De Rice is still cognitively functional.

Pena said she spent months at Maine Medical Center training to take care of her grandfather, who, she says, is like a father to her.

“My grandfather has been there for me my whole life,” she said. 

Pena said not only did her grandfather attend all the usual father-and-daughter events, but he would wake up early to make her lunch when she was in elementary and middle school, before he and her grandmother would take Pena and her sister across town to school.

Pena has a bright smile, but her voice quavers slightly when she talks about the role her grandfather, an Army veteran, played in her life. During his cancer treatments, Pena said he told his doctors it wasn’t his time to go because “he has to walk Sigourney down the aisle.”

Even after his accident, she said, her grandfather still wants to be her escort on her wedding day, although he may have to settle for rolling her down the aisle.

“We want him to have the best quality of life,” Pena said. “… We don’t know how long he has left. It is the right thing to do.”

Pena, who will graduate with the Scarborough High School Class of 2017 on June 11 at 7 p.m. at the Cross Insurance Arena in Portland, plans on attending the University of Southern Maine next year to study political science and law, and would like to become an attorney along the way to becoming president.

She said she wants to start her career in politics at the local level, maybe by running for the Maine Senate.

Pena, whose 18th birthday was the last Sunday in October, registered to vote the next day and voted early in the presidential election. She also registered as a Democrat.

“My mom has always raised us to be politically active. She had us attending rallies when our sister was in a baby carriage,” Pena said.

At a young age she attended a rally for John Kerry in Miami. More recently, in August, she peacefully protested outside of a Donald Trump rally in Portland, holding a sign in support of Hillary Clinton. 

Pena was also a Clinton campaign volunteer and worked the phones trying to get voters to the polls. At a more grassroots level, she served on student government, frequently as class president, from the sixth grade through 10th grade.

Pena was born in Portland, and lived there for four years before moving with her family to Rochester, New York, where she lived until she moved to Scarborough during her junior year.

She was a swim instructor in New York and was also captain of the girl’s varsity golf team. Pena said her grandfather taught her to play golf, a sport for which, unfortunately, she no longer has time.

Although she has curbed many of her activities since her grandfather’s accident, Pena has been a member of Storm for A Cure, the Key Club and Civil Rights Club.

She will also attend the 2017 Girl Up Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C, in July, one of only 300 girls from around the world chosen to attend the United Nations Foundation-sponsored conference.

Besides her devotion to her grandfather, Pena is also unique in another way: she’s a minority who identifies as African-American, Hispanic, Italian and Jamaican.

“I”m proud to be different,” Pena said. “I embrace it.” 

 Melanie Sochan can be reached at 781-3661 ext.106 or Follow her on Twitter @melaniesochan.

Sigourney Di Risi Pena, 18, a Scarborough High School senior, wants to become president of the United States. She plans on attending the University of Southern Maine next year to study political science.