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  • OVERCOMING HOMELESSNESS, MOTHER'S DEATH

    Grads Against the Odds: 'We were poor all our lives'

    Rogue River High School student will graduate despite eviction, poverty and tragedy
  • In his senior year in high school, Robert Nguyen became homeless, and his mother suddenly died at age 42.
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  • In his senior year in high school, Robert Nguyen became homeless, and his mother suddenly died at age 42.
    Yet, Nguyen prevailed over adversity, earning enough credits to graduate Saturday from Rogue River High School.
    "After the last year, I deserve to graduate," said Nguyen, 18.
    Nguyen moved to Southern Oregon from his father's home in San Jose, Calif., a year ago to live with his mother, Shari Bassett, and five siblings.
    Soon after arriving, family members were evicted from their home because Bassett was ill and couldn't pay the rent.
    From August through October, the family camped at parks in Rogue River to survive, sleeping in temperatures as low as 40 degrees.
    To obtain extra money, the older siblings would donate plasma twice a week.
    On weekdays, the school bus would pick up Nguyen and his siblings at the parks.
    Then, Nguyen would stay in town until close to dark when he would walk back to the camp site. If he hadn't finished his homework, he would find a picnic table in the park located near a street lamp so he could read his books.
    "My mom wanted me to stick to school and get it done, so I don't have to live the life she did," Nguyen said. "She had six kids. She worked as a taxi driver, a waitress, a receptionist. She didn't want me to have that life.
    "We were poor all our lives."
    With time, Bassett became more and more ill. She and Nguyen's younger siblings moved into a Medford motel. Bassett spent most of the time in bed suffering from a pain in her side.
    Nguyen went to stay with a cousin.
    He said doctors repeatedly told her nothing was wrong with her.
    One February night, Nguyen received a call from his eldest brother, Jeremy, who said their mother had died.
    Family members say Bassett's cause of death was undetermined.
    During the time after her death, Nguyen missed more school and credits.
    He was excused for the absences but had to make up credit toward the end of the year.
    His counselor, Rhonda Baumann, said he put on a strong exterior, but it was clear he was distraught.
    "For someone to have missed as much school as he has and gone through what he has, to be able to pass all his classes is amazing," Baumann said. "He has had to rely on his natural intelligence."
    Nguyen worries mostly for his youngest siblings, Alyssa, 11, and Eric, 8.
    "I'm afraid for my little brother and sister," he said. "They keep me going."
    It was unclear until Friday whether Nguyen would graduate on time. His grade in health class hovered near failure. A high score on the health final delivered him to the finish line.
    "I'm so happy," he gushed. "My (health) teacher came in seventh period and said I just made it. I screamed loud and gave her a big hug."
    Because he passed health, he is permitted to walk in the high school's graduation ceremony, where he also will sing with the choir.
    His mom "would be real proud," he said. "Her two oldest kids dropped out."
    Nguyen, who is now living with his older brother Timothy in Rogue River, hopes to attend Rogue Community College in Grants Pass in the fall, and major in computers.
    "I collect a lot of computer parts and try to upgrade old computers," he said.
    He plans to work during the summer in hopes of earning enough money to purchase a vehicle to help him get to class.
    "I can make a lot of money at computers if I can get through college," he said. "I could help provide for my brother and sisters. They lost their mom when they were so young. I don't want them to have to worry about where to live."
    Reach reporter Paris Achen at 776-4459 or e-mail pachen@mailtribune.com.
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