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Honor bound: To self, to family, to school

Daniela Maltais, a senior at Bemidji High School, is among 310 students who will graduate today from the high school. MONTE DRAPER | BEMIDJI PIONEER

BEMIDJI -- Daniela Maltais started kindergarten without knowing a word of English.

Today, she graduates, with honors, from Bemidji High School, as she looks toward her future.

"My teachers have been amazing," Daniela said. "I thank them all for their support, my Horace May teachers, my middle school teachers, my high school teachers.

"High school graduation isn't just about honoring myself, or the students, it's also about honoring the work of the teachers. They don't get that much credit, but they should."

In fact, Daniela, who will attend BSU next year, doesn't plan to have the typical graduation party. Her family, instead, plans to hold a Colombian-style feast, inviting the teachers who have been most influential in Daniela's education.

"We tend to do a lot of things in reverse," said Daniela, who was born in Colombia and moved here when she was six months old. "Instead of honoring me, we want to honor (the teachers)."

Her father, the late Vern Maltais, met her mother, Gloria, while vacationing in Colombia. He'd lost his papers and had to go to the court, where she worked, for assistance. There was a connection and he came back every summer until they wed.

Daniela, an only child, started school not speaking English.

"It was a struggle," said Daniela, who attended Heartland Christian Academy for her kindergarten year. "In my class, I was the only one with this type of skin tone and I didn't know any English. ... It wasn't that I was being bullied, but the kids were afraid of me because of all my differences. They were all blonde, blue-eyed, green-eyed. But then they got used to me."

At Horace May, Daniela began working with early-childhood educator Vicki Wangberg three times a week as Vicki taught the young girl English.

"Everything I know today, I owe to her," Daniela said. "We had this little room at Horace May, a very, very small one, and we had one computer and she had that Rosetta Stone program, so we spent a lot of time on the computer. But she was also very creative. She made these little books and games, all of these amazing ways to learn English quickly."

Family focused

Her mother had made a promise to Vern and his mother that she would stay here, to take care of Vern's brother Ron, a veteran who has post-traumatic stress disorder and some anxiety issues. For 30 years, she has taken care of Daniela's uncle, which has been a full-time job.

"My dad loved my family so much in Colombia," Daniela said. "One of the criteria my mom had (in finding a mate) was that he has to love the family as much as he loves her. So when he fulfilled that, she knew he was the one.

"She was going to do the same thing herself so she won over his family here. When she sees my uncle, she still sees him. With love, she takes care of him."

One of Gloria's sisters, Magali, lives with them as well. As Gloria focuses her attentions during the week on Ron, Daniela spends a lot of her time with Magali.

"Something my mother has always stressed is putting our culture first," Daniela said.

While most of her friends have gotten used to the differences between their own lives and hers, occasionally, someone will wonder why she spends so much time out with Magali.

"She's an older lady, in her 50s, but she's my best friend and I do everything with her," Daniela said. "She doesn't get to get out much, because she's at home helping to take care of Ronald, so it's the least I can do. If she wants to go to a football game, we will go together."

She actually has three maternal aunts -- two live in Colombia with her grandmother, but they all come back and forth as they can. Daniela said she calls them all mom.

Daniela on the weekends gives her mother a break and takes care of Ron, now 99, so Gloria can have some rest.

"I actually took AP psychology at the high school and some of the techniques and strategies they taught me, I've tried to use them on him," she said. "Like, when he has his episodes, I try to apply the talking to him, even using a little pressure ball to help relieve the stress, but mainly through the talking, he is able to calm himself down, which is a blessing.

"That's what school should be all about really, learning key principles for life and then using them wherever you go."

Where she goes is still not specifically determined. A lot depends on her family. Daniela, who was active in the Interact club and Model UN right now is committed to attending BSU for a year, so she can also stay home and keep helping her family. She plans to major in psychology and eventually pursue a medical degree to perhaps become a psychiatrist, maybe to work with children or the veterans administration, inspired by both her uncle and her father, who was the longtime veterans service officer for Beltrami County.

She's exceptionally pleased that today, as she graduates, her mother will be able to attend the ceremony. At one time, it didn't look likely as they can't leave Ron home alone. But now they have found someone to stay with him.

"I want to make her proud," Daniela said of her mother. "I promised that to my dad and my entire family in Colombia. It's a sacrifice being here. The American dream isn't something very easy to achieve. But it's worth it."

BHS graduation

When: 10 a.m. today

Where: Sanford Center

Details: 310 seniors have earned their diplomas

Class motto: "Don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened." (Dr. Seuss)