When Jesika McNeal slipped on her cap and gown Wednesday, the morning of her high school graduation, she wasn’t sure who would be in the audience.
Maybe her mother would show up. Maybe her sister would remember to make the drive from East Dublin, Ga.
It would be nice, but it really didn’t matter.
Jesika, 18, was becoming the first in her family to graduate high school for no one but herself. She watched people in her life choose drugs over family and destitution over education, and she made the decision years ago that her path would be different.
“At first, I was working hard in school because I wanted to give (my mom) what she never had,” Jesika said. “A home, things like that. As I got older, I started doing it for me. Now I want to prove to my sisters and my mom no matter how hard life gets, no matter what happens, even if you’re crawling on the dirt with nothing to your name, with a little bit of determination you can do anything.”
On Wednesday, Jesika graduated from Cross Creek High School seventh in her class with a 3.9 grade-point average. She leaves with three scholarships that will help her attend Fort Valley State University, where she’ll major in animal science this fall.
She came this far despite attending more schools through 12 grades than she can count on two hands. Jesika, her mother and four sisters lived in trailers with no electricity, in cramped motels, and jumped houses between evictions. She focused on school even when the family’s money was spent on drugs instead of the light bill and when the kitchen cabinets were bare.
“I’ve seen what drugs do; I’ve seen what not going to school does,” she said. “That wasn’t going to be me.”
JESIKA WAS BORN IN Georgia and, until high school, moved to Augusta, East Dublin, Atlanta, Louisville and towns in between – wherever the rent was cheap.
“I can’t even name all the places I’ve lived,” Jesika said. “Let’s just say I know how to pack stuff up. I don’t know how to unpack and put things away.”
After Jesika’s father left when she was about 4 years old, her mother’s boyfriend, Adam Wiggins, became “one of the only real parents I’ve ever had” even though he was constantly on the road for his job as a truck driver.
The family followed Wiggins to Oklahoma when Jesika was in ninth grade, about the same time, she said, her mother had to stop working because of health problems and fell into drugs.
When Wiggins and her mother broke up around Jesika’s sophomore year, the family moved into a motel off an expressway near Oklahoma City, where they lived for about a year and a half.
During her junior year, they moved into a nearby trailer, which leaked and was hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Jesika’s sisters, three older and one younger, all ended up quitting school and experimenting with drugs, she said.
Jesika, her mother and younger sister returned to Georgia at the beginning of Jesika’s senior year of high school after her mother rekindled a relationship with Jesika’s biological father over Facebook.
When they moved into a trailer in Hephzibah and Jesika enrolled at Cross Creek, life changed.
That’s where Jesika met guidance counselor Ame Holmes, who was shocked to hear the family was living with no electricity, often no food and no mattresses to sleep on.
Holmes saw how brilliant the girl was, how desperately she wanted a better life, and she knew she had to act.
By February, after the Department of Family and Children Services told Holmes it couldn’t help Jesika because of her age, the guidance counselor drove to the trailer in Hephzibah and picked up a new family member.
“Up until that point, I just thought people really didn’t give a crap about anybody else,” Jesika said. “I almost lost hope in humanity. Most of the people I knew were just very bad to each other. I was like ‘Wow, you actually like me, you want to help me?’ ”
Holmes and her husband, Scherwood, opened their home and treated Jesika like a daughter. She had never eaten dinner with a family before, never used a steak knife, didn’t know there were different types of forks.
Jesika had her own bedroom, warm showers, parents to talk to. She even had chores.
“I knew if this didn’t happen, she wouldn’t be able to go to college,” said Holmes, who has worked in Richmond County schools for nine years. “She’s in the top 10 of her class; she deserves a chance. She’s smart, she’s capable and I’ve seen her grow so much.”
DURING THE GRADUATION ceremony, Jesika spotted her mother and father waving in the audience. By the time Jesika walked outside James Brown Arena clutching her diploma and looking for them, she realized they must have left.
Waiting outside, however, was Wiggins and Jesika’s sister from East Dublin, Stefani Bolton, 23. The mother and sister of Jesika’s birth father also surprised her after seeing Jesika’s name in The Augusta Chronicle’s Best & Brightest section May 26, unaware she was living in Georgia.
The group embraced and snapped photos.
Wiggins held her close, telling her how proud he felt that morning.
“All that ‘I’m not going to fail’ mentality has all been in Jesika from the get-go,” said Wiggins, who hopes to change jobs and move to East Dublin to be close to Jesika while she attends college. “What she’s done and what she’s went through is unbelievable.”
Until she leaves for college in the fall, Jesika will spend the summer with the Holmeses. She hopes to go to the beach and watch the family complete the adoption of a 22-month-old baby in June.
As she, Wiggins and her sister left the graduation to celebrate over lunch, Jesika had to sit down and take it in.
“It’s like I’m on cloud nine,” she said.