- Associated Press - Saturday, May 20, 2017

EVERGREEN, Colo. (AP) - When the coroner snapped his notebook shut and told Gavin Arneson that his father was dead, the teenager’s tenuous family life took one more erratic twist. Arneson, who had just turned 18, was facing a shaky adulthood and another stint of homelessness.

“He said something like ‘Well, I’m sorry for your loss,’ and that was about it,” says the slightly built high school senior. “I think if I was 17, he would have tried to set me up with something or someone to make sure I had a home. But in this case, I was 18 and on my own.”

Arneson has risen above these and other adversities to gain national praise not only for his perseverance but his intellect. He recently received a four-year, full-tuition scholarship to study nursing at New York University and was awarded the National Honor Society’s annual scholarship - $20,000 given to just one student in the country. He was selected from 26,000 applicants.

Oddly, facing his first months as an adult without parental guidance seemed a familiar situation. Arneson and his brother learned to be resourceful while growing up living with either their mom or their dad, both alcoholics and struggling with their own demons, he says. But he soon learned he wasn’t alone in Evergreen. The Clear Creek High School community wrapped him in its arms, providing strength and support as he continued his stubborn pursuit of an education.

“I honestly don’t think I could have done this without the teachers and everyone else here,” Arneson says. “They kept me on track and told me to keep pursuing that goal.”

That doggedness is revealed in many ways. Arneson is the Class of 2017’s valedictorian and president of Clear Creek’s student council and honor society. He started the first Colorado high school chapter of She’s the First, a nonprofit that provides scholarships to girls in low-income countries.

He’s worked at least two jobs a week since freshman year and supported his dad, who was jobless, blind and fighting diabetes. His dad’s health had begun failing before the December day Arneson found his body in their two-bedroom Lakewood apartment.

Two days after his brief conversation with the coroner, Arneson was evicted for not paying the rent. He later learned that his dad had been keeping the $600 his son gave him every month for the landlord.

“We found cartons of empty beer bottles hidden away in his closet,” Arneson says matter of factly. “He was using the money to keep his drinking habit.”

Arneson called his older brother, who is attending college on the Western Slope, and an aunt and uncle who live in Fort Collins, and they began piecing together his life. This past semester he stayed with friends in Georgetown and co-workers in Lakewood, always paying rent.

He also plowed ahead in his studies, never forgetting what he vowed to himself as a fifth-grader living with his brother and their mom in a homeless shelter in Nebraska. “I told myself I was not going to end up a statistic, a homeless boy who becomes a homeless person.

“That was not going to be me,” he says with a convincing earnestness. “Education was going to be my way out.”

Arneson’s determination is unwavering, says longtime friend Annaliese Gould, also a Clear Creek senior. “He’s incredible,” Gould says. “He’s always upbeat and he always seems to land on his feet.”

The Arneson boys arrived in the area and began attending Clear Creek schools about six years ago, when they left their mother to come live with their dad near St. Mary’s Glacier. Teachers knew of the family’s struggles and the tight-knit community stepped up to help. They shuttled Arneson to school before he saved up enough money to buy a car last year and continue to bring him meals.

“That’s pretty much what we do here,” says English teacher Marlee Smith, who drove Arneson to school for weeks and worked with him on several projects aimed at helping the community. “We see someone who needs help and we see what we can do.”

“He’s incredibly driven,” Smith says of Arneson. “But he is also kind and thinks of others.”

Observing the care and attention that nurses gave his dad - and how he regarded them - helped shape Arneson’s career path. “He looked to them for some of his emotional support and I think that’s what nurses do. . They are there for their patients, giving them day-to-day care and support.”

Thinking beyond his May 27 graduation, Arneson says adjusting to life in New York City will be huge after working and living in the Colorado mountains.

But he won’t let any big-city struggles derail him from his life’s mission. “My education is my top priority,” he says. “Nothing will keep me from that.”

___

Information from: The Denver Post, http://www.denverpost.com

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