By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published April 30, 2015
Following an annual tradition, The Georgia Bulletin has taken the opportunity to shine the spotlight on some of the extraordinary high school seniors who grace our Catholic schools in the area.
Leaders at the seven Catholic high schools in the Atlanta Archdiocese were asked to nominate a graduating student they believe represents a role model for their students—a student who symbolizes the drive and faith and compassion of the student body—someone that the faculty watched grow from a wide-eyed freshman to a confident leader.
Among these profiles are a senior who teaches a special needs student to ice skate, a teen who started a charity for children struggling with cancer, and a French-speaking immigrant who began her school career answering all questions with a yes or a no without understanding the question. These profiles and all of the others illuminate an attribute of perseverance.
As these young people and all their classmates step toward the future in the next weeks, we wish them well. We are proud to share their stories.
ATLANTA—It might have seemed easier for St. Pius X High School senior Kristina Jespersen to say “I just can’t go on,” after the death of her mother, Lori, from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease her freshman year.
But Jespersen took the opposite path, persevering through loss to become a leader of the school community. She will graduate in May from the Atlanta archdiocesan high school.
“I’m going to miss it,” said Jespersen. She will attend Oxford College of Emory University to study film and business. “I want to be the behind-the-scenes type,” she said.
She learned of her mother’s diagnosis just prior to starting eighth grade at St. John Neumann Regional School in Lilburn. Lori Jespersen wanted to see Kristina go to a Catholic high school and died two months into her freshman year at St. Pius.
The only request her mom made was to be cared for at home. Jespersen’s father, Chris, quit his job to be her caretaker. “That’s what we did. We kept the promise,” said Jespersen, an only child.
Jespersen calls the support she has received from the SPX school family incredible, and school leaders, in turn, say she brings the school great credit.
“I’ve had so many teachers take an interest in me,” she said.
Jespersen enjoys writing and has done well in and out of the classroom. She is a Lion Leader, the title given older students who offer guidance to incoming freshman and help them settle into high school. She keeps in touch with the younger students she mentored throughout all four years. “It feels good to help someone,” she said.
‘I’ve made it to Pius’
St. Pius X Principal Steve Spellman said Jespersen is one of the finest students at the school.
“Since her arrival at St. Pius she has devoted herself to academic excellence and has involved herself in an extensive list of activities on campus,” he said, highlighting her role as a Lion Leader.
“Kristina has thrown her heart into this program and given her time and talent with a devotion,” he said. “She is a student that is loved by all and a credit to the values that we hold dear in our church and at St. Pius X.”
Jespersen loves to tell others what St. Pius is all about. “The favorite thing I do here is student ambassadors,” she said. When she first tried on her ambassador vest, she thought, “I’ve made it to Pius.” The ambassadors give tours and help during open houses and similar events.
Jespersen is also a Eucharistic minister at the high school. “It’s something I really enjoy. You are helping others to receive Him,” she said.
Jespersen is the senior member of the St. Pius junior varsity track team and serves as the unofficial sister to the younger members. She is grateful for the support of Coach MaryPat Martin.
“She’s the nicest lady on the planet,” said Jespersen.
Jespersen enjoys the feeling of finishing a race and competes in 100- and 200-meter events.
“I’m not the most athletic person in the world,” she admitted.
Jespersen allows time in her busy schedule for a very special activity—serving as a figure skating coach to a Special Olympics student, Sarah.
Jespersen relishes seeing Sarah come alive as she skates onto the ice for their weekly lesson.
“She’s the light of my life,” said Jespersen.
Jespersen has a box of medals from her figure skating competition days tucked away. “I’ve been skating since the third grade,” she said.
Forming Team Lori
Her other volunteer activities include donating blood through American Red Cross school drives and serving on the teen advisory board of the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America. How to raise awareness about Alzheimer’s and support others is the board’s focus.
“Really, this disease is the most horrible thing,” said Jespersen, whose maternal grandmother also had Alzheimer’s. You might have the patient physically with you, but they aren’t really there, she said.
“It was really difficult,” recalled Jespersen.
That’s where fellow students and teachers helped. Spellman, who had only known Jespersen for a few weeks when her mother died, served as a pallbearer at the funeral. Chris Jespersen was hired by the school to be closer to her. “We both ended up here,” she said.
Teachers and counselors offer continual backing to her. “They’re invested. They want to see me go places,” said Jespersen.
When her mom’s April birthday rolled around for the first time, Jespersen’s friends arranged for a special way to honor her memory, using the color associated with Alzheimer’s awareness efforts.
“We all had purple balloons,” said Jespersen. “They did that for her.”
She and friends formed Team Lori for the Walk to End Alzheimer’s, a fundraising event of the Alzheimer’s Association.
“We spent a day counting all these coins by hand,” said Jespersen of the first-year efforts.
Ultimately, the team raised $1,000 for Alzheimer’s research.
“I feel her all the time,” said Jespersen about her mom’s presence. “I just want to keep making her proud.”