High School graduation is a monumental time in any person’s life, and when you’re someone who has experienced a life-changing accident or illness, graduating has a whole new meaning.
Laura Magnuson, M.Ed., Craig’s full-time teacher, understands this all too well. Each May and June, Laura attends as many graduations as possible. Some are for patients who may have recently left the hospital and others are for students she worked with at Craig several years ago.
“I’ve connected with these students during a very challenging time in their young lives and have seen their progress and determination. Much of their time at Craig is focused on rehabbing from their injury, so I’ve been told that the most normal part of their day, where they feel connected to their life before the accident, is when they’re in school,” she said. “After being a part of my students’ journeys at Craig, going to their graduations is an opportunity for me to celebrate success with them in their own environment surrounded by families, friends, teachers and community. I feel honored to represent their Craig Family.”
Craig’s School Program
For approximately 15 years, the donor-funded Craig School Program has helped high school students with their studies while they’re in the hospital rehabilitating. Craig is one of only a few rehabilitation centers nationwide with a teacher on-site and gifts to the School Program help pay for the teacher, supplies, computer technologies, graduation parties, and other program needs. Laura and her colleague, Cory Wendling, a new, part-time teacher, work with high school age patients who are able to continue their studies to help them catch up, as their injury would’ve kept them out of school for some time, as well as continue their studies at a level of engagement appropriate to their ongoing rehab. They work closely with each student’s school and teachers in their hometown, as well as with the patient’s care team, family and assistive technology experts at Craig. A key part of the school program is helping the students with their studies and planning for their return to school.
“The School Program is a game changer. We work hard to empower students as they build upon strengths, access curriculum in innovative ways, self-advocate, and gain self-confidence…all while earning school credit. These are some of the tools needed so students can be successful after Craig,” Laura said.
High School Graduation Road Trips
This year, Laura attended 10 graduations (there were more than 20 former patients who graduated in 2018), which included trips to Kansas City, Hobbs and Albuquerque, New Mexico, Northern California and several in the Denver metro area. Below are a few of the amazing stories that Laura and the graduates shared.
Marcus Johnson lives in Oklahoma City and sustained a spinal cord injury. He had stopped going to school at one point, and then re-enrolled to earn his diploma just before his injury occurred. While at Craig, he worked nights and weekends to catch up on his course work, discharged the week of his graduation, and was able to graduate on time with his class. When asked what it was like working on classes while also focusing on rehab, Marcus shared the following: “Working on classes was a little hard, interesting and exhausting. I wanted to prove to myself that a bullet (also the SCI) couldn’t stop me from doing what I wanted to do. I am now looking into scholarships and filling them out so I can enroll in a college, hopefully in the Denver area. I dedicate everything I’m accomplishing to my Craig team. They kept my head up, encouraged me when I was down, and taught me so much. They cared about me and really motivated me to finish the job. I am grateful to Ms. Laura and Cory for encouraging me to work during my down time and on weekends. Every member of my team did more than the job they were handed. Now, I’m on track to be the best I can be."
In California, Laura celebrated with Ashton Fritz and his family. Ashton sustained a spinal cord injury in the summer of 2017 while attempting a back flip at camp. He worked with Laura on government and economics from September of last year until he went home earlier this year. He graduated on time with his class and a solid cumulative GPA of 3.2. He plans to attend Folsom Lake College this fall and hopes to transfer to a four-year university. He has his eyes set on Cal-Berkley where both his parents graduated. “It sucks what happened to my body,” said Ashton. “But because of the injury, it allowed me to connect with people and form really strong friendships that I otherwise would not have. I needed to graduate on time with my class to finish what I had started. My wrestling teammates, teachers and the entire Vista School was so supportive of me when I came home. It was great to ‘walk’ with the Class of 2018 and my friends at commencement.” Ashton credits his passion for rowing and wrestling with preparing him mentally “for the fight of his life” when he injured his neck. "You don’t quit rowing 500 meters before the finish line, and you don’t give up wrestling until the final whistle blows. These sports taught me to push myself beyond my own physical limits and mentally persevere until the race or match is over."
Nathan Barkocy, who lives in Albuquerque, was an accomplished road cyclist with dreams of turning professional, when in January 2016, he and his coach were struck on their bicycles during a training ride by a distracted driver traveling 50 miles per hour. Nathan sustained a severe traumatic brain injury (TBI) and had to relearn how to walk, talk, eat and think clearly. At first, Nathan was reluctant to attend school while at Craig, but a mutual love of the Broncos and cycling that he and Laura shared turned it around. He has been accepted and will attend Franciscan University in Ohio to study business. One of the most remarkable things about Nathan is not just his recovery and graduating from high school, it’s the message he carries into the world. He has forgiven the driver who hit him, and together they have given talks in the community. “Two years ago, Angela (a unit secretary) and I told Nathan we’d be road tripping to Albuquerque to celebrate his graduation. We were so thrilled to see him receive his diploma and celebrate with his friends,” said Laura.
Laura also attended Cesar Cervantes’ baccalaureate in Hobbs, New Mexico. He spent a semester at Craig in the fall of 2017 after sustaining a SCI in a diving accident. He graduated with high honors and is taking a gap year to focus on therapy before going on to college.
In Kansas City, she visited with Cayden Hoth, who was injured in early 2016 as a sophomore. He sustained a SCI when he was in a car accident. Cayden was at Craig for nearly six months and worked with Laura on English and history, and earned additional elective credits for his hundreds of hours of therapy. He feels blessed to be walking and driving and is working hard to regain finger dexterity. He has a job and will be attending Kansas State in the fall to study business.
Greg Murphy and his family also live in the Kansas City area, and Laura was able to connect with them just a few weeks before his graduation. Greg injured his spinal cord when he was thrown off an ATV his sophomore year. He hasn’t let this slow him down, though. Greg works out regularly, still loves to fish, holds a job, and was able to graduate with his class. In fact, his goal was to stand up, leave his wheelchair behind temporarily, and walk across the stage to receive his diploma. Through hard work and determination, Greg made this happen! He’ll be attending University of Central Missouri in the fall.
Marnix Hoogwater sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI) while skiing in Austria in 2016. After more than a month in an Austrian hospital, he was airlifted back home to Colorado and was admitted to Craig. He worked hard re-learning basic skills in order to return to school. Marnix is an avid sailor and once he left Craig, he was able to continue restoring an old 19’ sailboat. He graduated from Heritage High School in Littleton and has been accepted to Rotterdam University in the Netherlands where he’ll study Maritime Engineering to learn about the design and construction of yachts and container ships. Last year, he worked to improve his Dutch language skills, and was able to pass the Dutch as a Second Language national exam, qualifying him to be admitted to university in Holland. “Graduation brings about a sense of accomplishment for any grad because it shows that one has passed the required checkpoints and reached the intended finish line by one route or another. I definitely didn’t follow a straight path when taking the steps needed to hold my diploma. During my journey, I had some missteps, some stumbles, and one big fall that brought me to Craig. Without Craig, finishing school would have just been a dream in my scrambled mind.” And from Suzanne, Marnix’s mom: “High school graduation was a special moment to celebrate both our son’s determination and the amazing educational, emotional and practical support he received from Craig. Laura brought school to the forefront early in his recovery, while we were barely thinking of how to get Marnix back to school. Her guidance, dedication and expertise, especially during the transition phase, have kept our son in the learning flow. Much gratitude!”
It’s not just traditional high school graduations that Laura attends. Sometimes commencements are held in-house. Two Craig patients, Mollie Zeiger, 32, and Cale Winningham, 20, earned their GEDs while at Craig and this is no easy feat! Laura worked closely with both of them.
Mollie is a loving mom of three who has been thinking about earning her GED for a number of years. This was an overwhelming thought, though. Last winter, she was injured (SCI) when her jeep overturned. Tragically, her husband passed away. While at Craig, Mollie shared this GED goal with a therapist, who, in turn, reached out to Laura. By earning her GED, Mollie has accomplished a huge personal goal and has shown her children the importance of perseverance. Mollie is fluent in sign language and hopes to be able to interpret for the hearing impaired.
Cale also took the GED route to earn his high school equivalency. “Attending a traditional high school is not always the right path for students, and in Cale’s case, he showed just how bright he is by scoring ‘college ready’ on a couple tests. Now college doors are open for him, if he chooses,” said Laura. “GED graduations are every bit as important as the high school ceremonies attended this year. Mollie and Cale are non-traditional students who’ve battled through many challenges and recognize the importance and significance of earning a high school diploma,” said Laura.
While this year’s graduation season is complete, the School Program is year-round, with a steady flow of 10-12 students all the time. In fact, 50 students tapped into the school program in some capacity this school year, which is up 17 students from last year. In response, Craig added a part-time second teacher, Cory. “I’m so glad Cory is a part of our school program now. He brings creative energy and had a chance to work and celebrate with both Marcus and Cale this spring,” said Laura. Now in her 10th year as a teacher at Craig, Laura is proud of each and every student and keeps in touch with many of them, way beyond graduation. “It’s so inspiring to see the students’ unyielding determination. I feel very blessed to work with them.”
In addition to donors providing 100 percent support for the School Program, another ongoing opportunity is available, as well. This spring, a record-setting 41 Craig Grads applied for college assistance through the Harry Hahn Craig Alumni Scholarship Fund. According to Laura, the number of applicants has been growing every year, but the amount of money available to distribute remains about the same. “We’d love to be able to provide larger scholarships to help students pursue their goals and dreams.”
Dr. Harry Hahn, the medical director at Craig from 1979-1985, knew that education was one of the factors determining a graduate’s future success and quality of life.
To encourage Craig patients to pursue formal education, he established the Craig Alumni Scholarship Fund. For decades, the Scholarship Fund has been helping patients take the first steps toward a brighter future by providing them with support to pursue educational opportunities following their rehabilitation.
A committee comprised of Craig Hospital staff and community volunteers reviews applications and makes recommendations considering applicants’ educational goals, financial need and achievement. Scholarship awards typically range from $1,000 to $2,000.
The Alumni Scholarship Program has advanced the educational aspirations of over 1,000 Craig alumni with nearly $1,000,000 in scholarship assistance since 1988. In 2018, 41 recipients received a total of $49,700 in scholarship support.