Editor‘s note: This is the seventh in a series of stories looking at some of the 2007 graduates of distinction in Collier County.
Everglades City School student Kate Slaybaugh doesn’t complain about the challenges she endured.
Transferring from a large Ohio high school, where her family lives, to lead a graduating class of five seniors during her final year of school was difficult.
Living in a Chinese orphanage until she was 13 years old, after being found on the street as an infant, was no picnic either.
Instead of complaining about her onerous upbringing, Kate uses adversity to motivate herself to greatness, no matter where she is.
“If you want to be successful in life, you just have to always be on top of things,” she explained. “If you’re on a tough path, just try to hang on and get through it, and it will work out all right.
“Don’t give up too early.”
Kate has come a long way in her 19 years to graduate as her school’s valedictorian with a 3.8 grade point average.
Kate was discovered on the streets of China by a police officer after being abandoned by her birth parents. The officer took her to an orphanage, where she lived with several other young girls.
“It’s very, very different than living here,” Kate said. “We always had to stay in the building, because they were afraid we’d get hurt, or be taken.”
When she was 11, Kate took on several grown-up responsibilities at the orphanage, including washing all of the younger children’s clothes and looking after them. Her education came primarily from television, because, she said, officials at the orphanage did not know what else to do with the children.
Still, Kate views the experience as a character-builder.
“Orphanage life made me the person that I am,” she said. “I’m quiet, and I’m always trying to be good and do well.”
When she was 13, Kate’s adoptive parents spotted a picture she had drawn on a Web site. The family, who had already adopted a Chinese orphan several years before, decided to adopt Kate as well in 2000.
“At first, I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew (America) was going to be a magical place,” she recalled. “But there are problems here, just as there are in China and anywhere.”
Kate spent her first few months as an American citizen learning the language. Until her departure from China, the only English words she had mastered were, “hi” and “thank you.” Following a short stint of home-schooling, Kate was enrolled in the sixth grade in Medina, Ohio.
“It was difficult at first,” she said. “I remember crying when I was in the sixth grade, because the teacher made an assignment, and I didn’t know what to do.
“But,” she added, “nothing comes easy.”
Kate worked hard, and thrived in her new environment. But before her senior year, a falling-out with her parents prompted Kate to move to Everglades City, where she lives with her aunt, Lou Ann Tankersley.
“She’s really had to work at everything, and she’s really come a long way,” Tankersley said. “Kate just has a drive to succeed, and she pushes herself.
“She will succeed. I know she will.”
Once again finding herself an outsider in an established community, Kate set forth, doing her best to make new friends and break into long-established cliques. As with most everything else in her life, Kate succeeded.
Kate said she employed the simplest strategy when it came to making friends: Be yourself.
“I needed to get away from home, and find out what life was really like,” she said. “I like it here. I like the small community.
“It feels like a family.”
Kate rose to the top of her class, while participating in volleyball, basketball and the art club, and working as a cleaning lady for a local church and hotel. With scholarships from the Devoe Automotive Group and from Florida Gulf Coast University, Kate will continue her quest for knowledge at the Estero school.
“It’s going to be a new experience for me,” she said. “It’s a little scary, because you’re all on your own, and there’s nobody there to take care of you.
“Hopefully, I’ll understand what it’s like to live in the real world.”
Despite having conquered her afflictions, there are still many enigmas Kate wants to tackle. She plans to pursue a doctorate degree in genetics to aid her in her quest for answers.
“I never got to meet my real family, and I always wondered what they look like,” she said. “It’s all a mystery to me, because I never got to know them.”
While crediting her past, Kate never forgets to be grateful for the future she can have in the United States.
“There are so many possibilities here,” she said. “I like the option of freedom.” I want to be on top of everything. I believe that’s how life should be.”
EVERGLADES CITY SCHOOL
Graduating class size: Five seniors, three juniors
Graduation: Friday in the school cafeteria, 415 School Drive
Senior officers: Class President Alexander Hancock, Vice President Jennifer Zynda, Treasurer Amber Lopez and Secretary Kate Slaybaugh.