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Jennifer Rynes is the Extra Effort Award winner from Brookwood High School.

Peter Thomson, La Crosse

Jennifer Rynes wants to set the record straight.

She’s recovering from an eating disorder. She takes medication for depression, but she hopes she can go off them someday. She attempted suicide twice, but she doesn’t want to die. She just needed someone to understand.

“For the longest time, all I thought about was being perfect,” she said. “But now, I’d rather be happy.”

Jennifer is the Extra Effort Award winner from Brookwood High School in the Norwalk-Ontario-Wilton School District — an honor she earned by battling through her personal struggles with strength and dignity and by refocusing her energy on the positive things in her life.

It started in sixth grade when Jennifer started running to lose weight. Teased for being chubby, she would overexercise and deny herself food. By ninth grade, she was bulimic.

“We lose weight to please people and to please ourselves, but an eating disorder is a disease,” she said. “It needs to be treated.”

She told her dad about her problem the summer after her sophomore year and started working with a behavioral therapist and a dietitian, but things got worse before they got better.

“I couldn’t do it anymore,” she said.

She attempted suicide by overdosing on her depression medication that summer and again during her junior year.

“It was frustrating,” said her father, Dave Rynes. “I’m a policeman. I’ve been there when there were kids in some of the situations Jen was in, telling parents what to do to help their children. Then, ‘poof’ — I’m right there.”

Individual and family counseling helped Jennifer talk through the issues that had been troubling her — body image, relationships with family and friends. She learned to eat and exercise normally and learned to communicate effectively.

“She rebounded hugely,” guidance counselor Angie Egge said. “She came back with the attitude ‘I am who I am.’”

At school, she set her sights on achievement. Active in Brookwood’s chapter of the National FFA Organization, Jennifer’s prepared speech about servant leadership that earned her a trip last fall to nationals in Louisville, Ky.

“That really helped me,” she said. “It gave me that outlook that I could be a leader.”

An accomplished musician, Jennifer plays tenor saxophone in band and made it to state playing Class A repertoire in the Wisconsin School Music Association Solo and Ensemble Competition. She also competes in play acting in forensics and put on a Wellness Day at Brookwood High as a part of her Family, Career and Community Leaders of America project.

“Her speaking ability is her gift,” said Gary Von Ruden, Brookwood’s agriscience and FFA adviser. “She’s blossomed, and I think she’s used some of these difficulties as a springboard.”

Now, with senior year drawing to a close, Jennifer is looking forward to starting a new chapter at Winona State University, where she hopes to study social work and psychology with the eventual goal of working as a behavioral health therapist.

“I want to help people who are going through the same things that I went through,” she said. “At the end of the day, people need to talk to someone who can relate.”

“Things are better now,” Jennifer said. “It was all about communication.”

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