When Dominion High School senior Kim Tran receives her latest award this week, there will be plenty of proud surrogate parents who relish the moment. Over the past two years, teachers, counselors and administrators at the Sterling, Va., high school have offered housing, provided rides to work and even at the worst times, given their student gift cards for food and clothing.
Tran explained that her unstable family situation meant she sometimes didn't have a place to stay and she was once living in a car.
"Things got really difficult because my life was very unstable. I had nowhere to go," Tran said.
When she arrived at Dominion as a transfer student midway through her sophomore year, it seemed she had everything together.
"When she came through the door she had a really open personality, a big smile, and I thought, 'Wow, this girl is really well-adjusted,’" recalled her counselor Ashley Tucker. Tran said she ran for class office the first day and won.
She also made a connection with one of her teachers, Scott Russell. But as time passed and Tran began to open up about her living situation, Russell and others became concerned.
"As I learned what her adversity was, I just couldn't imagine somebody having to deal with it," Russell said. "Whenever I knew of something I could do, I tried to do it whether it was school supplies or ride."
Tran started having Sunday night dinners at the Russell home. Her counselor said other teachers and staff pitched in, too.
"Everyone who meets Kim here, you just kind of fall in love with her right away," Tucker explained. "It was easy for us to say, 'Oh gosh, who can take her tonight? She doesn't have a place to go.’"
When Tran's situation worsened during her junior year, Scott Russell approached his wife, a middle school teacher, and made his pitch. Last summer, the Russell family invited Tran to move in with them full time.
"She's got her own room and she's got the laundry room, hot water and a refrigerator and all the things we really take for granted," Russell said.
It's much more than that, Tran said.
"It kind of meant the world to me," Tran said. "It let me know that people are really kind and not everything is dark and things always get better."
They certainly have gotten better for Tran. Last year she won one of the Children's Defense Fund's prestigious "Beating the Odds" awards. This week she'll be honored as a recipient of the Loudoun Future Leaders award. She's applied to four Virginia universities and will learn on April 1 where she's been accepted. But when she sets out on her own next fall, she says her connection to Dominion High will remain strong.
"It's like my refuge, the one place where I feel loved,” she said. “I know if I keep working hard good things will come out of it, and that's what I intend to do."