HOLLAND — For West Ottawa senior Alivia Ybarra, the path to graduation was anything but easy.

She overcame a number of obstacles to not only finish high school, but to excel along the way and was recently named the 2020 Panther Pride recipient by West Ottawa High School.

Each year, WOHS awards the Panther Pride award to one graduating senior who has overcome various challenges on their way to graduation and the pursuit of higher education opportunities.

“We couldn’t be any more proud of Alivia, where she’s at today and where she’ll be five or 10 years from now,” said Jason Reinecke, principal of West Ottawa High School. “She not only overcame challenges in life, she absolutely soared above them. It was a fairly easy decision this year. We’re excited for her future.”

“When I got the email saying I was the Panther Pride recipient, I was speechless,” Ybarra said. “I still am. It’s crazy to believe where I am and what I’ve done. Hopefully I’m able to share my story and inspire others. It’s great and I’m super blessed.”

Ybarra’s story starts with a difficult childhood, in which she grew up with an abusive father and a mother with mental health issues. Following a “rocky divorce,” Ybarra’s mother started abusing drugs. Then, just days before Ybarra started high school, her mother moved the family from their home to a hotel room and Ybarra decided she needed a change.

“I decided that wasn’t the right place for me and that I was way better than what my mom could give me,” she said. “We got into a big argument that ended in me getting kicked out. I moved in with my grandparents and I’ve been there for four years.”

With so much going on in her personal life, it would have been easy for Ybarra to let her focus drift away from the classroom. Instead, she worked hard, enrolled in honors classes, got involved with the LINKS program to help students with special needs and worked two jobs to save for college.

“Obviously, it was hard,” Ybarra said of moving past her personal troubles. “I just took pride in the fact that I can make a better life for myself and I did. That was my main motivation throughout high school; just an idea for me that I am doing something with my life.”

Ybarra credits the staff at West Ottawa, and counselor Lacy Otteman in particular, for playing a big role in her success as she overcame the obstacles she faced.

“West Ottawa made me feel safe and pushed me toward my goals,” she said. “(Ms. Otteman) really took interest in not only me, but my situation. Not just her, but a lot of teachers have taken interest in my story. They encouraged me to continue my academic career in high school. They have definitely inspired me.”

Following high school, Ybarra will attend Michigan State University to study child development on a pre-med track. She hopes to become a child life specialist and help children and families dealing with illness and disabilities.

“I believe that I can help others in a way by combining that with my life experiences,” she said. “With that career, I would be an advocate for the child and the families with what they’re going through. I would guide them through their health and what’s going on.”

The 2020 Panther Pride award was announced through a video released on the West Ottawa High School YouTube page on Thursday, May 21.

— Contact reporter Mitchell Boatman at mboatman@hollandsentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @SentinelMitch.