When Joe Adorjan walks in his Onalaska High School graduation, his parents won’t be in the crowd. At just 17, he has lost both his father and mother. But supporting him will be his proud teachers, and the loving family who took him in.
For a time, its seemed Joe might barely make it through high school, a series of tragedies and a tumultuous home life leading his motivation to wane and his grades to slip. But with the compassion of the staff at Onalaska High School and the care of the Kuhlmann family, Joe developed a new sense of purpose and renewed joy for life.
His fortitude is recognized by his instructors, who nominated him for the Tribune’s Extra Effort Award.
“It’s remarkable to see the person that Joe has become despite losing both parents as well as experiencing other stressful situations,” says Jared Schaffner, principal of Onalaska High School. “With Joe, I am most impressed with his positive outlook and his tremendous sense of appreciation. Instead of a sense of bitterness or making excuses, he is so appreciative of his teachers, his friends and the Kuhlmann family for their support. He is genuinely thankful for everyone that has supported him and he is such a kind, compassionate young man. He almost always has a smile on his face and he thrives when put into a position of helping other people.”
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Joe’s life began to spiral downward when he was in middle school. His father, whom Joe calls “the greatest role model in my life,” was found dead in his home.
“It was shocking. It didn’t feel real,” says Joe. “If felt like I could still just walk to his apartment and see him. It threw me off, not just in school but mentally.”
Joe missed a few weeks of school, he says, and his mom struggled as well. Joe distanced himself from her, holing up in his room and, rather than living his life was simply “going through the motions.” Many nights were spent crying, and Joe cycled between anger at his father for “leaving him” and blaming himself, thinking maybe he could have saved his dad and feeling guilt for not calling enough.
By high school, Joe’s mind was less occupied by grief and he began to socialize more. But his mother, Joe says, was drinking heavily and was verbally abusive. He frequently escaped to the home of the Kuhlmann’s, friends who “always felt like a family to me.” But Joe feared leaving his mother alone for too long due to her alcohol issues and health problems. At times, he worried she would die.
Freshman year, Joe lost his drive to improve his grades and fell behind on homework. The turmoil at home was exacerbating his struggles, and Joe moved in with the Kuhlmann family, which includes parents Jim and Brenda and Joe’s classmate Taylor. When school went virtual during the pandemic Joe slipped academically but made an effort to improve at the start of second semester junior year.
In February 2021, Joe found his life “shattered again” when he learned his mother had died.
“A million thoughts ran through my mind ranging from ‘how did this happen’ to ‘I wish I could have been there to help’ and ‘this is my fault,’” Joe wrote in his Extra Effort essay.
Overcome with hurt and shock, Joe felt a small sense of relief that his mother, who had not been doing well, “was in a better place.” And so was he, in a home where he felt safe.
“I will never get the chance to see my parents again — they won’t be there for my proms, my graduation, and for my kids,” Joe wrote. “But I’ve been blessed with a new family that I can call my own — Brenda and Jim are the closest I can get to having my parents again.”
Krissa Byom, academic support at Onalaska High School, says Joe manages to find silver linings in his situation, noting “He does not use his past as a crutch, instead he is vocal about how he had learned from his past and how it will shape the future Joe.”
As Joe says in his essay, “A couple takeaways from my parents’ deaths (are) that I need to cherish the time me and my loved ones have together. I will never be an alcoholic or an addict.”
Teacher Marjorie Anderson says Joe maintains “his positive attitude in spite of overwhelming difficulties. One of the characteristics that I so enjoy about Joe is his great sense of humor and his ability to talk and communicate with other people. I have witnessed numerous times Joe reaching out and showing kindness to others. I also have enjoyed watching him realize his own potential to accomplish his goals.”
Ashley Nowak, another of Joe’s teachers, says the two connected over losing people close to them and the importance of “moving forward because that’s what our loved one would want.” Nowak had Joe in class both freshman and junior year, and noticed his “infectious sense of humor” as well as his compassion.
“I loved how Joe was open to hearing other people’s perspectives on a variety of topics. As someone who has experienced hardship, he has a better understanding of empathy than many high schoolers,” Nowak says.
Senior year, Joe has flourished, maintaining A and B grades, trying out welding and developing a passion for golf, part of the school’s team. As a physical education aide, Joe assists students who are “struggling at home or just having a bad day” and each day strives to “make a difference in someone’s life by putting a smile on their face and being friendly to everyone I see.”
Following graduation, Joe is considering attending Western Technical College for welding, or may take time off to enjoy life “like a normal teenager,” having missed out on the chance to be a carefree teen.
The impact of his parents’ deaths will forever affect him, but he sees his Extra Effort Award as confirmation “you can always get through something, if you work hard enough and believe it.”
Emily Pyrek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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