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Student who was once homeless graduates at the top of her class

Tallya Rhodes at H.D. Woodson High School Graduation Ceremony (Courtesy of the Rhodes Family)

In a sea of pride at H.D. Woodson High School’s graduation in June success stories abound, reminding us that perseverance never disappoints.

If there is one story here to embrace it’s the tale of Tallya Rhodes, who ascended to the top of her class despite living, for a time, in a world of uncertainty.

“I’m excited. I graduated valedictorian!" said Tallya Rhodes.

While there is immeasurable joy in this moment, there is also relief. A trying chapter in Tallya’s life is finally over.

For one fraught-filled year during high school, Rhodes, her sister and mother Sebrena were homeless.

"I’m just happy. I’m relieved. It’s been a struggle. It was all worth it,” said Sebrena Rhodes.

"There were times where it was easier to quit than to keep going but I knew I couldn’t. I knew I had to keep pushing and keep striving. That’s how I’m able to stand before you today as the valedictorian of the 2018 graduating class,” exclaimed Tallya Rhodes during her valedictorian speech.

So how did Tallya Rhodes thrive during the darkest of times?

“I don’t want to be stopped. I don’t want any challenges to make me feel like I’m less than what I am and to feel like I need to accept less than what I should or deserve. Watching my mom go through what we went through I knew I never wanted to be in that situation,” said Tallya Rhodes.

Tallya says between 9th and 10th grade, while her family lived in a trailer park in North Carolina, her mother was the victim of domestic violence.

“I heard my mom screaming saying, 'Get out, get out, call the police,' and then I heard her screaming like she was being pulled somewhere so I ran out of my room and the person she was with was outside the window pulling her outside the window. And that was the first time I’d seen that and it was kind of hard," said Tallya Rhodes.

Tallya says later that summer, without warning, they left one night and never returned.

“It started to get around midnight and asked my mom if we were going to go home and she said no. That was the last time I went to that house and those are the last weeks I spent in Salisbury,” said Tallya Rhodes.

They moved to Washington, D.C. to be near family but soon found themselves in a city-run homeless shelter based out of a motel. The accommodations, according to Tallya, were less than ideal. Her entire sophomore year she lived with five other people in one cramped room.

“Sometimes I slept on the floor so I could stretch out more. There was one bathroom. There were rats," said Tallya Rhodes.

Blessed with an inner drive to achieve you can’t teach, Tallya used school as her outlet, her respite from the rats.

“I’d seen academics as a way of getting out of the house," said Tallya Rhodes.

Friends wondered why she worked so hard. Teachers knew and surrounded her with unbending support in and out of school. Sometimes that meant a ride home, a meal, a hug or clothing — and they never stopped encouraging her.

“There were a lot of teachers here that were just there for me since the beginning and they never stopped caring about me,” said Tallya Rhodes.

The turning point came when Tallya realized if she could flourish in the classroom while living in a homeless shelter she could achieve anything. There was no going back to that trailer park in North Carolina. And she vowed to never return to the life on the other side those shelter gates.

“I can’t do this and I can’t watch my mom go through this so I just kept going and I have to do something about it," said Tallya Rhodes.

In the end, her mother’s story was all the motivation she would need. Sebrena Rhodes, determined to escape abuse and homelessness, found housing for her children after living in the shelter for a year.

Tallya never looked back. Her work ethic and grades got the attention of college admissions offices. She’s heading to Concord University in West Virginia on a full ride scholarship.

“And eventually that goal is going to become a success and then you are going to have another goal and another one and eventually you are going to have so many successes that you won’t know what to do. It’s going to become that time when you can finally say I made it,” said Tallya Rhodes.

“And Tallya being the valedictorian it’s like the best feeling in the world. I’m just, I don’t know... I don’t know... I’m just excited," said Sebrena Rhodes.

And so are we knowing the life that awaits someone who knows full well that perseverance never disappoints.

“Really, no matter what always just keep going, keep going and do whatever you can to prevail. I’m living proof that it works," said Tallya Rhodes.

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