- Associated Press - Saturday, May 21, 2016

EUGENE, Ore. (AP) - Nine years and four months ago, a headline in the Register-Guard’s City and Region section read, “Troubled students find cat-alysts for change.”

The Jan. 12, 2007, story told about seven local people, ages 14 to 23, who were helping sick cats as part of the Lane County Department of Youth Services’ Veterinary Preparatory Program that had launched the previous year.

The idea was to get at-risk youths, who had found themselves in trouble with the law and may have had other behavioral problems, focused on caring for vulnerable animals instead of the chaos that normally swirled around their lives.

Now, one of those youths, Jeremy Polk, stands alone a decade later, the Register-Guard reported (https://bit.ly/1TVZJ9U).

“I don’t think he realizes how remarkable it is,” said Dr. Jodi Wiktorowski, a veterinarian and owner of Eugene Animal Hospital. “He lived in a vehicle, he had no home, and he did it all on his own.”

Polk, who was 17 when he started the program, is now 27. He is also a graduate of Oregon State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and about to embark on his dream, a career as a vet.

But he doesn’t think what some would call an against-all-odds accomplishment is all that surprising.

“I don’t think so,” Polk said. “I think anyone has the ability to pull themselves out of anything.”

What Polk pulled himself out of was a situation any child would find daunting: being raised in an environment where methamphetamine use was rampant.

His mother in and out of jail and his father mostly absent, Polk found himself living in a foster home during the eighth grade at Springfield Middle School.

“I was just a really angry kid, and really combative,” he said.

Unstable childhood

His family having moved from Bakersfield, California, where he was born in 1988, to the Eugene area when he was about 2, Polk lived a life bouncing from one school to the next, one living space to the next.

He remembers living in a motel and taking care of, or trying to take care of, a German shepherd puppy named Jack.

“And it pooped everywhere,” he said recently, sitting in Wiktorowski’s office at Eugene Animal Hospital on Orchard Street, just east of the University of Oregon’s Matthew Knight Arena.

He didn’t know how to take care of the dog and no one showed him. He was around only a few months, Polk recalled.

Asked what happened to Jack, Polk said: “I have no idea. I think I came home one day and he was gone. It happens in poor families, where you just give up on an animal.”

But he also remembers a family dog named Sophie, a black Labrador retriever that his older brother was in charge of taking care of when they lived in Oakridge.

“She was just a good dog, and she was a good companion,” Polk recalled. “And for a lonely kid, she was just there.”

Asked how far back the memories go, of wanting to be a veterinarian, he thinks of Sophie and being about 7.

Saving graces

Polk remembers dropping out of high school, he thinks it was North Eugene. He remembers living in a foster home in Lowell that was not a good situation.

Somehow, he wound up at Bridges, a group home and school run then by Looking Glass Community Services that was housed near the Lane County Juvenile Justice Center’s Serbu Youth Campus.

Bridges is where Polk met a teacher named Joni Herb, who he has stayed in touch with ever since.

“That woman, more than anything else, is my saving grace,” Polk said of Herb, who now lives in eastern Oregon.

The Serbu Youth Campus is also where the Martin Luther King Jr. Education Center resides. Lisa Williams, an education specialist there, is the one who started the Veterinary Preparatory Program and coaxed Wiktorowski, her life partner and then a veterinarian in Eugene’s Santa Clara area, into leading it.

The program, funded by a $1,800 county grant, was already up and running when Herb heard about it and told Polk.

Williams recalled Herb begging - “late in the game” - to let Polk into the program.

“School was my only refuge,” Polk said. “And veterinary medicine was a very sparkling and shiny idea that no one in my family would have thought of. It was the only real career I ever really wanted.”

So, a troubled kid who always wanted to be a vet ends up in a group home right next to where a youth veterinary program is happening.

Serendipity?

“It’s moments like that that I look back, as much of an atheist as I am, and think maybe … ” Polk said.

Or maybe it was all just meant to be?

“Who I wanted to be”

“Just very giddy and happy and excited and just wanted to know everything,” is how Wiktorowski first remembers Polk. “He came in dead-set on becoming a vet.”

But there was another connection.

“Because Jodi is who I wanted to be,” Polk said. “And I didn’t realize it at the time, but because they were openly gay, and I (am) gay …

“Because they’re just amazing people and you certainly can’t help but fall in love with them.”

By the time Polk was engulfed in the youth vet program, Herb had also helped him maneuver enrolling at Lane Community College. Together, they figured out the federal financial aid forms.

He got his associate of science degree in 2009.

Then he enrolled at OSU, graduating in 2011 with an undergraduate degree in biology.

Then he applied at veterinary colleges far and wide, landing at St. George’s University School of Veterinary Medicine on the Caribbean island of Grenada.

He studied there for three years, returning to Oregon in December 2014, and finishing his final year of graduate school at OSU in January.

To become a veterinarian, though, one must do more than hold a graduate degree.

One must pass the North American Veterinary Licensing Examination, a grueling seven-hour test.

Polk failed the first time. And the second time.

“It is a very stressful and emotionally tumultuous time, if you don’t do well,” Polk said. “And it is expensive.”

Application and other fees run almost $800, he said.

But this spring, on his third try, he finally passed.

Finding moments

Polk has worked at the Eugene Animal Hospital as an intern and technician, but now needs to pass the Oregon Jurisprudence Exam/Regional Disease Test as required under state law to become licensed to practice in Oregon.

And then, well, he needs a job at a local vet clinic, if he wants to stay in Lane County.

“He has a brain that remembers details and minutiae, so he is going to remember diseases and stuff,” Wiktorowski said. “He’s very good with people, and he has a huge investment in giving back to the community.

“And he has pretty much everything that it’s going to take, because this is a pretty demanding career.”

Polk has been living with Wiktorowski and Williams at their Creswell home, with their border collies, donkeys, chickens, ducks, sheep, frogs, bees, etc., since February, when he began studying for the North American veterinary exam.

“They’re family,” Polk said.

He has also reunited with both his birth mother and father.

His father, however, is dying from liver disease, Polk said, and there is not much time left.

Also, Polk has about $300,000 in student loans to pay back.

“It’s kind of a bummer,” he said of the loans, “but the career is such an amazing thing, it really balances it out. You find moments of joy and contentment.”

___

Information from: The Register-Guard, https://www.registerguard.com

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