For Brenda Mateo, it’s a matter of movement.
“I keep going,” said the 17-year-old Arcadia High School senior. “No matter what you go through, you have to keep going, and you cannot give up.”
Mateo has gone through a lot; too much. It was only last year when she lost her mother, and it’s now her second year at a new school, Arcadia High School. Despite everything, or maybe because of it all, Mateo has left a lasting impression on the staff and student body in a very short time.
Jen Pinnow, Arcadia High School counselor, said the staff voted to nominate Mateo for the La Crosse Tribune’s Extra Effort Award, in large part, because of her indomitable spirit.
“She’s just always a positive presence in our building,” Pinnow said. “We know she’s come from a difficult background, and had some difficult things she’s been through, but she’s so driven, so positive.”
It’s an attitude like Mateo’s, she said, that changes the culture of the school.
“Does she have her down days? Sure,” said Pinnow, “but, what does she do? She’ll come in and chat. Instead of creating that environment of, ‘I’m not really having an up day today,’ she’ll come in and talk. Once she leaves, that smile’s back on her face.”
If the smile is genuine, it’s also been hard to show at times.
Mateo and her mother, Jody, lived in Sparta, but on Aug. 8, 2015, Mateo’s world changed forever when Jody unexpectedly died.
“It was very, very short notice,” Mateo said. “Friday night I went to bed normally, and then my whole world changed when I woke up.”
Jody died of a heart condition; she had high blood pressure, and no one knew how serious it was. The family thought it would go away, or at least be kept under control.
“I woke up that morning,” she said, “and my sister (Caress) was visiting, and she found her. My mom didn’t go make coffee or anything. It was kind of weird.”
Mateo woke up to her sister screaming. She called 911. It all happened so quickly.
“All of a sudden, I just had to pick a sibling who I was going to live with,” she said.
She chose Sabrina, 21, who has two kids of her own. She lives in Arcadia, and Mateo wanted to stay close enough to Sparta so she could visit more easily. She’s also closer to Sabrina in age, and they’re emotionally close. She wasn’t just choosing Sabrina, either: she was choosing to live with her nieces, who are 4 years old and 1. It’s a house full of girls.
“It’s fun,” she said.
But, in 2015, with the death of her mother still galvanizing her emotions, Mateo and her family had a mere two weeks to realign their entire lives.
“It was so fast,” she said, “and it was already August, so I had to figure it all out before school happened.”
That meant going through everything in the house, sorting what would be kept, making the move, and enrolling in Arcadia High School.
“It was a lot to have,” Mateo said.
What was missing, she said, was her best friend. Her mother.
“I basically lost my best friend without even a notice,” she said.
Jody was 48 years old.
When she moved to Arcadia, Mateo said, she knew a few people from visiting her sister, but no many.
“I kind of made new friends,” she said. “Now, I have a lot of friends I call ‘family’ here. I’m really lucky.”
Arcadia High School Principal Alan Herman called Mateo a force of kindness.
“There was an immediate connection between her and the community,” Herman said. “She just opens her heart.”
While she has a strong desire to do better for herself, he said, she has an even stronger desire to be thoughtful of others. It’s that awareness of those around her that is unmistakable when you spend time with Mateo.
“She’s not trapped in her own world,” Herman said.
At first, Mateo said, the change of schools was horrible. New scheduling, new peers, a new life she was unprepared to face.
“Especially going to school knowing you have that huge, kind of like, depressed moment on your back,” she said, “and you’re carrying it through school. But, I’m also trying to make a difference in my family. And, try to be the first one to go to college, the first one to do everything. I’ll be the second one to graduate in my family.”
It’s still hard for Mateo to be without her mother, especially around the holidays, but she said she’s good at keeping it to herself. She doesn’t really show it, but she feels it. She’s also been attentive to the mistakes she’s seen others make, and that informs her.
“I carry that with me,” she said, “so I know what I do not want to do, and I know what I want to do. And that’s kind of my strength.”
What she wants for her future is to become a kindergarten teacher. She’s job shadowed at PALS in Arcadia, and that further convinced her it’s her calling, and it helped her understand why.
“Because I love kids,” she said, “and that’s where the root of the process starts.”
Mateo applied to Winona State University, but because of her ACT score (she’s retaking it soon), she wasn’t accepted. She’s not giving up. She’s appealing (Herman is writing her a letter of recommendation to go with her appeal).
“She said, ‘Nope, I’m not done,’” Pinnow said. “‘I’m going to appeal this, and I’m going to find a way to get there, because this is my dream.’”
Pinnow said Mateo tries to get involved in the positive things at school, the things she knows will benefit her down the road. That might include encouraging her peers to attend the Free Application for Federal Student Aid meetings, or playing out on the soccer field in the spring for the school’s team.
“She tries to bring people with her,” Pinnow said. “She’s busy. She works a lot. She works hard.”
That includes an after-school job at Kwik Trip in the kitchen. She also picks up garbage around town, and that came from the awareness that recycling and a clean environment are important.
It’s part of a larger awareness Mateo has, one that involves making an effort to drop everything negative that holds someone back, and moving forward in a positive light.
“You can either fall to the ground,” Mateo said, “like your situation has, or you can get back up and make it something that you couldn’t even imagine for yourself. You have to make the best out of everything you get.”