Since she was a teenager, Tyler Hernandez has had to take care of herself.
As a high school student, she has been temporarily homeless. She put school on hold when she moved to Brookings for nine months to take care of her sick father. She worked full time while taking classes. And she watched her mother relapse into drug addiction and later die of cancer.
Those obstacles could have derailed her high school education. Instead, Hernandez persevered, and even though it took her six years, she’s earned her diploma. Hernandez, 20, graduated from Bridges High School — Jefferson County School District’s alternative high school — on June 1.
She says she was motivated by her mother, who died in April, the supportive staff at Bridges and by her desire to participate in a traditional graduation ceremony.
“I’ve been trying to get my diploma for a really long time,” she said. “I just thought it was cool, watching everyone get their cap and gown and walking with your class. Everyone’s crying and all happy for you, and it’s just great.”
The staff at Bridges says Hernandez is a changed person from when she arrived.
“When she first came here ... she wouldn’t even make eye contact with you when you spoke with her,” said Pat Wetzel, the school’s administrator for online classes and its secretary. “Her sense of self-esteem was really in the toilet. Now, she’s full of life and confidence.”
Hernandez was born in Brookings but moved to Madras when she was 10. She’s worked full time since she was 16, at grocery stores and restaurants in Madras and Brookings and even commuting to Macy’s in Bend for a short period.
In the fall of 2016, Hernandez said her mother brought her older brother, who was homeless and addicted to heroin in Portland, back home to Madras. However, shortly afterwards, her brother brought a dog into the home — a violation of the family’s lease, Hernandez said. The family was quickly evicted and started living in an RV.
During this time, Hernandez’s parents separated, and her dad moved to Brookings. Hernandez said she and her mother, whose drug addiction resurfaced at this time, would frequently fight, which resulted in Hernandez sometimes being locked out of the RV. For about a year, she occasionally slept on friends’ couches, or in her car.
Hernandez said she moved to Brookings for much of the 2017-18 school year, temporarily dropping out of high school.
She said her father, who has diabetes, was dealing with medical complications at the time, such as organ failure and the blood infection commonly known as MRSA. His leg was also amputated at the time. Due to her father’s medical condition, Hernandez decided to take care of him.
Once Hernandez returned to Madras in the summer of 2018, she received a Facebook message from Wetzel, who convinced her to return to Bridges and make a final push for her diploma.
“She was like, ‘Hey, you know you’re still eligible to come to school here. Just come in tomorrow; I already enrolled you,’” Hernandez said. “I’m like, ‘Okay, cool.’”
After graduating, Hernandez said although she isn’t sure of her plans, her goal is to attend Clackamas Community College, near where several of her family members live. She said she might want to study psychology — a subject in which her grandfather earned a doctorate — but she wants a change of pace.
“I don’t want to work at Safeway or a pizza restaurant forever,” she said. “I want to do something better with my life, more fulfilling.”
Wetzel said she believes Hernandez’s determination and perseverance will help her after graduation.
“Considering what she has been through and the obstacles she had to overcome while trying to get through school — to me, that says, this girl can do it,” Wetzel said.