ONALASKA — It is hard enough growing up in a world that throws a lot at young teens.
For Onalaska High School senior Katie Harvey, things were even harder growing up poor and feeling alone and isolated. The teen struggled through several moves, her mom’s efforts to keep a roof over her kids’ heads and the power of gossip and bullying from classmates she thought were her friends.
With all this weight on her shoulders, Harvey struggled at school. By her sophomore year, she was failing a number of classes and was almost at her wit’s end. But then she found comfort and support in her friend Elijah, who motivated Harvey to turn things around.
She got her grades up, and found stability with her relationship with Elijah and his parents, even moving into their home. The two lean on each other when needed and keep the other in balance through thick and thin.
“I’m just beyond proud of her,” Elijah said. “I couldn’t do what she has done. She never gives up and never lets the bad stuff stop her from achieving what she wants.”
Because of how she has turned her life around, Harvey is this year’s La Crosse Tribune Extra Effort Award winner for Onalaska High School. Teachers and staff credit her dedication and resilience and describe Harvey as a fighter who never gives up.
“She has been through a lot,” Onalaska High School counselor Beth Gamoke said. “It is pretty amazing to see how well she is doing.”
Originally from Ohio, Katie’s mom Mandy Evans moved the family to her aunt’s place in Holmen and enrolled her in the Onalaska School District near the end of Katie’s fifth-grade year. They were trying to get away from her father and as a result, the family moved a lot growing up.
The family started off living with Katie’s aunt Keli Mades, then moved into an apartment. But it was only a temporary solution, and the family moved again, this time living with a neighbor friend.
Housing was a struggle for the family, Katie said, and when they lived with the friend’s family, they had to sleep on the floor. Her freshman year, the family moved to Winona and lived with her mom’s boyfriend, but moved out after that relationship ended.
“I always told myself it wouldn’t be like this forever,” she said. “I kept telling myself things were going to change.”
Living in Winona made things really hard for Katie. It was a 45-minute drive to and from school and she tried really hard to keep the moves and the struggles with housing secret.
But freshman year things changed. She was friends with two classmates, but when the relationships soured, she said the two started gossiping and spreading rumors about her.
They would say mean things in the hallway, Katie said, and tortured her online by inviting her to group chats and saying things about her. They would make fun of her family’s financial struggles and making comments if she came back from Starbucks with a coffee.
“It was definitely really hard,” she said. “Sophomore year, I just started skipping class all the time.”
While this helped her avoid the classmates, she ended up failing three classes that year. Her struggles got the attention of school staff, who intervened.
Gamoke said she has seen a lot of kids who struggle with barriers, but Katie was dealing with a lot. She didn’t have the supportive peer or adult relationships she needed to help her handle the stress she was under.
“She was broken as a sophomore,” she said. “She didn’t have the coping mechanisms and support she needed.”
Elijah helped her turn things around. The two started dating when Elijah, who is a year younger than Katie, was a freshman in 2016.
They knew each other in middle school and kept in touch when Elijah moved to Wisconsin Rapids. The two reconnected and had their first date at Valley View Mall during Katie’s sophomore year.
The two could just talk about things for hours, they both said. And knowing Elijah was there for her made all the difference and helped Katie feel better.
“He just understood everything,” Katie said. “He was always there for me. He didn’t judge and didn’t say anything; just listened.”
When they started talking, Elijah said he could tell Katie was going through a lot and could tell she was sad and struggling. He knew he needed to be there for her and the two would meet every other week and connect and hang out at Elijah’s basketball tournaments.
Elijah supported her and cheered her on. Katie said he made her feel like she could do anything. And she can, Elijah quickly added as the two began finishing each other’s sentences.
Last quarter, Katie had As and two Bs for her grades. She’s hoping to attend the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse or Western Technical College and work with special needs students as a career.
“I’m excited to graduate and go on to college,” she said. “I want to see what the future holds for me.”
Among the staff at Onalaska is a weekly tradition to celebrate the achievements of students. As Katie improved her attendance and grades, she was Gamoke’s celebration, which the counselor shared with Katie and her mother.
“Now she has all of her balls spinning and in the air,” Gamoke said. “But her sophomore year, she just couldn’t do it.”