These members of the Class of '22 explain how they turned their lives around
Dawson Murray-Edwards wasn't sure he'd graduate from high school, and he certainly didn't expect to finish his Grade 12 classes in a rehab program, but that's the path the 18-year old from Rusagonis ended up taking.
In Grade 11, Chelsey Sparrow made the bold decision to leave her mother and sisters in Sydney N.S., for a fresh start at Harvey High.
Denver Hayes changed schools five times during his high school career and overcame his "behaviour issues" on his way to discovering his Indigenous culture and his academic potential at Oromocto High.
And Mercedes Yerxa went from ditching classes at Fredericton High and smoking weed every day on "the hill," to graduating with good grades and a plan to become an educator.
These Class of '22 grads are among the students in the Fredericton and Oromocto area being recognized this month with Turnaround Achievement Awards. Given by Kingswood Resort, the awards go to students who have "demonstrated effort, commitment and perseverance."
Dawson Murray-Edwards, Rusagonis
"I've always been a troublemaker throughout my life. I've always been in and out of trouble and I just chose the wrong road in high school."
Dawson Murray-Edwards started drinking and smoking pot in middle school, and by the time he got to high school it had become "an everyday thing."
"There's an adrenaline rush and it always intrigued me," he said. "Nowadays you see that stuff on movies, you see that stuff in videos and growing up with social media definitely valorises it a bit, makes it seem something that it isn't."
After his uncle died in his Grade 10 year, Dawson said he spent his days working, and then drinking about 24 beer. He rarely made it to school.
"Like all those rock star movies you see — you know you go partying — that was basically how I lived my life, and then it got too far, to the point where it wasn't fun anymore."
He was in a serious car accident in Grade 11 that left him unable to walk for three months, and that led him to start abusing prescription medication as well.
"The way I was living I wasn't going to make it too far," he said. "I didn't know if I was going to make it past 20."
At the end of the summer as he was getting ready to start Grade 12, after staying up all night drinking and doing drugs, Dawson decided he needed help.
"I called my mom and I said, 'I don't want to live like this anymore. I'm just slowly killing myself.' I was slowly digging my own grave. So I told my mom, 'I need to do something before this is irreversible.'"
His mother was proud of him, he said. Her brother — Dawson's uncle — had struggled with addiction his entire life before he died. Dawson's mother told him he had made a decision that many adults can't make.
"Me and my family are basically at the point where people can judge us. They can judge me for what I've done. Yeah, I did drugs and I was an addict, I was struggling pretty bad but we're more proud of the fact that I got help than be disappointed and try to hide it from people."
Dawson entered the Portage Atlantic rehabilitation program. He spent six months living there and focusing on his recovery, and on school.
"I just put my head down," he said. "When I was in there school was the most important thing to me, and I just kept going and going and going until I finished it in three months. I graduated and it was pretty crazy."
Now back home with his family, Dawson is learning how to be a teenager without drugs and alcohol. He is working at his family's business, learning to drive a dump truck, and looking forward to attending New Brunswick Community College in the fall to become a truck and transport service technician.
Receiving a Turnaround Achievement Award was a huge surprise for him.
A year ago, he would have laughed at the notion that anyone would give him an award for anything.
"It's pretty exciting that I did this for myself. I turned myself around and it's been noticed … and hopefully it can help other people."
Chelsey Sparrow, Harvey
"I was a student who didn't really have the urge to learn. I didn't have the willpower to put myself forward and want to graduate."
Chelsey Sparrow admits that in her early days of high school in Sydney N.S., she didn't have any expectations of herself at all, and was just taking things "day by day."
"My mother was an alcoholic — she was on and off benders, and I was raising my two sisters, so I was more worried about them going to school and getting a life more than my own."
Chelsey skipped classes most days with her friends, racking up nearly 100 absences, before she decided she had to make a change.
"I realized I was going down the same path that I heard my mother went down as a kid … and I remember looking at my mom and I said, 'I want to leave.' And she goes, 'What do you mean?' I was like, 'I don't want to live here anymore.'"
In December 2020, she moved to Harvey to live with her grandmother and to make a fresh start. The hardest part, she said, was leaving her younger sisters.
"Raising them and being there and being their best friend and their support system — it was really hard to look at them and explain why I was leaving," she said. "But after a while, I realized I can't help them if I'm not helping myself first."
Chelsey said at first it was "awkward" at her new school. Everyone already had their friends and had known one another "forever."
Surprisingly though, she quickly bonded with her new classmates and soon felt accepted.
"They just took me under their wing once they got to know who I was."
With new friends, the support of her grandmother and of teachers, her entire outlook has changed, Chelsey said, and she now looks forward to going to school and seeing friends and teachers.
"They helped me discover who I want to be, instead of who I was becoming."
Chelsey hasn't skipped a class in two years and is looking forward to going to New Brunswick Community College this fall where she will study early childhood education.
She will continue to live with her grandmother in Harvey, which she now considers her home.
"She has been my best friend," Chelsey said of her grandmother. "When I had home problems ... like dealing with the stress of my sisters back home she was always there. She always supported me and told me it's not my role to be the adult. She gave me the opportunity to be a kid and live my last years of high school."
Chelsey is still surprised to have received a Turnaround Achievement Award.
"I honestly thought these awards were specialized for the students they've known and they've been with forever, and when I got it I was almost in tears."
Denver Hayes, Oromocto
"Sharing my culture and learning about it has impacted me the most out of all the things I've been doing — it's been a fantastic journey."
It was a journey that took Oromocto High School grad Denver Hayes across Canada. In his four years of high school he has attended five different schools, including one on a remote Cree reserve in northern Quebec, one in Ottawa, and an alternate high school at Oromocto First Nation, Kinapuwi Kehkitimok.
He finally found his place when he arrived at Oromocto High School in Grade 11 — for the second time.
Denver had attended the school before, and admits he was a "rowdy student," who had struggled with consistent attendance, disruptive behaviour and academics.
"The way I used to talk was immature, which got me into trouble a lot. I really struggled with the behaviour issues, which was a bad look on me as a student."
Denver had to prove to staff at the school that he was ready to take on a full course schedule.
"The academics were there, but the behaviour they didn't want."
Denver showed everyone that he had changed. He played for the football and rugby teams, joined the school's BIPOC committee and participated in a co-op course that brought him to local middle and elementary schools, where he has been able to share his Indigenous culture.
"These little children are great to work with — they're always happy," he said. "It helps me to do well in school because I want to make sure that these children that I'm teaching do well in school too.
"I've really been pushing this 'it's OK to practise your culture' idea."
Denver said receiving a Turnaround Achievement Award was was a shock and shows that hard work can pay off.
He is enrolled at the University of New Brunswick this fall with a $5,000 scholarship. He plans to get a Bachelor of Arts degree.
"I am very excited to get on to my next degree and work hard."
Denver is a Mi'kmaq grass dancer and a member of the Gesgapiegiag First Nation in Quebec. He hopes to spend more time dancing at local powwows. He said discovering and sharing his culture has been a huge part of his transformation.
Mercedes Yerxa, Fredericton
"In Grade 10, I got into smoking weed and that's when it took a turn. I would take the bus to school and ditch full days and then get back on the bus and go home, and I wouldn't go to class."
Mercedes Yerxa says she "did OK" in Grade 9 at Fredericton High School. But that changed in Grade 10, when she made some new friends and started hanging out every day on "the hill" — an area behind the school.
"That's where all the fights happen and people smoking weed, and I got up there and met some people and then I just started going with them."
Her mother threatened to take her phone, and her resource teacher, Greg Porter, met her many days at the bus to ask why she hadn't been in class.
Mercedes said she didn't appreciate their concern at the time, but looking back now she is "so thankful."
"It matters to me because most people in a school would not do that for someone, they would just let them go."
When the pandemic began in March, 2020, everything changed for Mercedes. She could no longer meet up with her friends and no longer had access to pot.
While it was "rough at the beginning," Mercedes said it turned out to be the fresh start she needed.
"A lot of people think COVID is really bad, but for me it was good because I had no access to anything."
When she went back to school in the fall, she alternated between in-person and at-home learning days, and her marks and her attendance improved.
"I don't ditch at all anymore. My marks are pretty high now."
Mr. Porter called Mercedes into the office to tell her about the Turnaround Achievement Award and read aloud a paragraph detailing all that she has accomplished.
"Mercedes has navigated some incredibly difficult times in her personal life but through the
support of her family was able to come through them as a stronger, more resilient, confident,
and compassionate individual," he wrote.
Mercedes plans to attend Eastern College in Fredericton in the fall to become an early childhood educator.
She said she's always loved kids, and knowing what a big impact a good teacher can have makes it a perfect choice for her.
"It feels really good," she said of receiving the recognition.