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Daring to dream

The clouds of uncertainty that linger over Remi Mejia have never dimmed her spirit. And a much-needed breath of fresh air has allowed the former South Medford High basketball star to shine brightly once again.

Following an athletically disappointing but academically successful four-year stint at Portland State University — where, after receiving a full-ride scholarship, she became the first member of her family to earn a college degree — Mejia joined the Southern Oregon University women’s basketball team as a redshirt senior, and her triumphant return to the Rogue Valley is making the 23-year-old graduate student feel “happier than ever.”

Averaging a team-best 15.8 points per game, Mejia has sparked the Raiders to an 8-1 start and recently was named Cascade Conference player of the week after catching fire from behind the 3-point line during a successful three-game road trip. The 5-foot-5 guard has also been a defensive dynamo, coming up with 2.9 steals per game.

And while her skills have obviously invigorated the Raiders on the court, her maturity, work ethic and upbeat attitude also have been hugely impactful as an example for the team’s younger players, third-year coach Alex Carlson said.

“She’s been giving and allowed herself to fit in,” Carlson said. “It’s a testament to the type of person she is and her character.”

“She’s been about doing the little things that are tough to do,” he added. “It makes it easy for your younger people to buy in because she’s so dedicated. You can see why she’s successful.”

Mejia has been impressing coaches since the day she arrived at Medford’s Kids Unlimited as a fifth-grader attending Oak Grove Elementary. It’s there she met Tom Cole, the coach who groomed her to become an elite prep player and eventual Division I scholarship recipient.

“From there, that’s basically where my life began,” Mejia said.

Cole, the head girls basketball coach at South Medford and also the founder and CEO of Kids Unlimited, led a network of community liaisons who transformed Mejia into Medford’s poster child for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), signed in June 2012 by President Obama to provide a path to legal residency for children brought into the country illegally by their parents.

As a result, Mejia — whose family left Mexico for the United States when she was 6, living in Los Angeles before moving to Medford — gained temporary legal residence and received her Social Security number and an Oregon driver’s license, which opened the door for her to accept the full ride to Portland State.

“That program to me, it impacted my life completely,” Mejia said. “It not only gave me an identity, it gave me opportunities to reach my dreams. One was to go to college. Tom told me, ‘Yes, you can do it for free.’

“It basically gave me wings for freedom to pursue anything I want in life — to continue to go on flying to reach dreams that I have in mind,” she continued. “Imagine taking that away from me: It’s like cutting wings off a bird trying to fly. And that’s what it feels like.”

Unfortunately for Mejia and the other nearly 800,000 immigrants who were brought illegally into the United States as children — commonly known as “dreamers” — President Trump announced in September that his administration would end DACA, calling the program unconstitutional and challenging Congress to address the issue.

And while lawmakers remain divided over proposed legislation that could protect so-called “dreamers” from deportation and allow them to remain in this country permanently, a deadline looms: The work permits will expire starting March 5.

“It is terrifying, but the thing is, if you haven’t done anything wrong, why are you going to try to take this away from us? It’s terrifying knowing we have what we have now but it can be taken from us at any given second,” Mejia said. “I’m just like any other American who has dreams, who wants to be successful in life, who is just trying to part of this beautiful country that’s only given me blessing and opportunities to show the world we belong here like anybody else.”

Immigrants are “the most hard-working people you’ll ever know,” she added. “It doesn’t matter if we’re out there terrified; it can all disappear.”

For Cole, Mejia’s “second father” and mentor who has helped guide her through extraordinary obstacles to spectacular success, the subject of deportation is an emotional one.

In Cole’s office is a photo of Mejia in front of the Lincoln Memorial — taken on a trip to Washington, D.C., with the South basketball team during Mejia’s sophomore year — with the inimitable words of Dr. Martin Luther King, “I Have a Dream,” inscribed on a plaque above her.

“This kid has done everything the right way,” Cole said. “She represents everything we want as citizens. This kid embodies that over people who have been in this country for generations. This is a kid who’s never been in trouble, overcome countless barriers, never let obstacles prevent her from believing she could be a better person and a better citizen.”

“What is the criteria for being a good citizen? Is it just that you were born here?” he continued. “She’s proven she belongs. To not have that kind of consideration in our problem solving around that just seems so short-sighted.”

Mejia is similar to many immigrant children who attend Kids Unlimited, whose families enter this country with nothing and try to build a better life with the help of public institutions. And the children who have successfully navigated through the trials of citizenship should be differentiated from those who have not, Cole said.

“Our system has embraced (Remi) and has had responsibility for who she is,” Cole said. “She’s a product of public education. She‘s a product of the values of our community. It’s a completely different standard and it’s really frustrating. Look at everything we’ve invested into raising these children to become contributing members of the United States.”

“It’s hard to digest that,” he added. “It’s tough to come up with a justification for why someone we as a country have invested in, when you start to quantify that, why would reject them when they’re capable of contributing? I don’t have the solution but I know they’re part of our system. They’ve been indoctrinated into our culture.”

Cole recalled meeting a little girl whose parents “worked extra hard,” both with two jobs, and faced plenty of hardships, but always with class, dignity and determination.

“There was something really special about her as a person from a young age,” Cole said. “None of (the challenges she faced) ever changed her disposition of being an honest, caring and compassionate person. I’ve known very few people ever with that level of integrity. She’s the same person. Nothing’s changed. You don’t find a lot of people who you can say that about.”

Said Mejia, who has two brothers and four sisters and cherishes her family’s deep connection:

“My parents, they raised me right: Be humble, remember where you came from. I’m still the same humble person who came to the United States from Mexico at age 6.”

After Mejia, as a junior point guard in 2012, led South Medford to the program’s only state championship and a 30-0 record, Cole watched an old recording from a VHS tape that showed a 10-year-old Remi wearing her Rotary Club jersey at Kids Unlimited, saying in broken English that when she grew up she wanted to play basketball for Coach Tom and go to college.

“Her story is a special one and it’s a reflection of the work of Kids Unlimited,” said Cole, who has seen eight of his players secure Division I scholarships during his storied tenure at South. “That’s why we do the work and she’s one of a lot of kids who continue to succeed because they’re given an equal opportunity. She is this constant reminder of why, because she’s a kid who’s going to make a difference. And I think the best is yet to come.”

Mejia, for her part, remembers Cole noticing her on the basketball court because she stood out for her ability to dribble a ball and execute a layup.

“He’s always been there for me since the first day we had practice,” she said. “He was the one that told me, ‘No, you have a future in basketball and you have to dedicate yourself to sport because you have a future.’”

“I’m forever in debt with how my journey started, thanks not only to Tom Cole but Kids Unlimited,” she added. “It keeps me going because I want to give back — give back to the community by not quitting on myself and keep pushing forward and be a role model for these kids and be whatever they want to be in life. Follow your dreams and be someone successful. I want to impact the community in that type of way, being that role model for the kids to become something great so that they can be remembered no matter what they pursue in life, telling them, ‘Never stop dreaming, because dreams do come true.’”

Mejia’s basketball career at Portland State, however, was hardly a dream scenario. Coaching changes, limited playing time and a season-ending knee injury during her sophomore season — which led to her redshirt — put a damper on what Mejia expected would be a “fun journey” and instead ended up “kind of like a roller coaster.”

Lacking opportunities to prove herself on the court and not knowing what her coaches wanted from her as a player, Mejia grew increasingly frustrated with the program and even lost her passion for the game of basketball, she said.

“We didn’t respect the coaches,” Mejia said. “And it shows on the record. We were all playing selfishly.”

Always looking to turn a negative into a positive, Mejia changed her mindset: As she started to dread team practices, she increased her focus on academics and looked forward to attending classes.

She also didn’t want to let down her family and herself.

“I feel like that sacrifice was definitely worth it and it made me really strong,” she said. “It made me the person that I am today — this confidence that I can be anything I want to be in life and I can prove wrong those people who doubted me.”

“I’m thankful I was able to finish college, but other than that, I don’t miss much about Portland,” she added.

After graduation, Mejia considered attending a school where she could join either another Division I program or perhaps a Division II, but after consulting with Cole, she chose SOU for several reasons: The system felt like a better fit, she’d likely get plenty of opportunities and she’d also be back home with her family.

“I wanted that passion for basketball to come back to me,” Mejia said. “I’m back where people believe in me and they support me, unlike in Portland, where people doubted me. And they will remember me.”

“It feels like now I can breathe,” she added. “I can be happy and continue to succeed and keep moving forward. It’s kinda like saying, ‘Yeah, that’s me.’”

When Mejia began to consider enrolling in a master’s program at SOU, Cole reached out to Carlson to tell him about the “priceless heart and leadership and character” Mejia would bring to the program.

Last week, Mejia missed a day of practice because she had to drive to Portland to deal with issues pertaining to her DACA status, a prime example of her ongoing legal struggle, which has been an “eye-opening” learning experience for Carlson and Mejia’s teammates.

“Not everyone’s facing those challenges on a day-to-day basis,” Carlson said. “It’s very impressive how she takes everything in stride and looks for the best in things. She continues to go to the positive side.”

Cole also sold Mejia on capitalizing on the small window of opportunity she had worked so hard to create in order to seize her master’s degree — and on the ability to get her smile back.

“This was a kid who did this with no one in her family tree to advise her,” Cole said. “I always was honored to try to be a sounding board for her.”

Mejia has relished her role as leader for the Raiders — who have nine new players on their roster this season — and Carlson has enjoyed having her.

“Having that first local kid to come into the program was very important for us,” Carlson said. “It worked out on a lot of levels for the both of us and we’re just thrilled that it did.”

Mejia fits the system “really well” and is starting to get more comfortable, even though there’s been a big adjustment during the three months since she joined the program, Carlson said.

“We expect her to only improve,” he said. “She’s here to become a better player. She wants to continue to improve and we’re excited to see her improve. With her drive and her work ethic, by the end of the year we think she’s gonna be a really special player for us.”

Mejia also wants to be a special community member — given the chance. She’s pursuing her master’s in education after attaining a bachelor’s degree in criminology and criminal justice with a minor in psychology at PSU.

Since early childhood, Mejia has wanted to work in law enforcement. Ideally, she’d like to become an investigator focusing on child protection.

In the meantime, Mejia still spends plenty of time at Kids Unlimited — now as a part-time employee, instead of a client — and on the basketball court with Cole, whom she assists with coaching at South Medford.

“My one goal right now is to finish strong at SOU and show people that basketball is the love of my life — prove it every single practice and every single game by giving it my all,” she said. “Because it’s my time. It’s my time now.”

Now the question is: Will time remain on her side?

“Who knows from now if I’m even going to have the opportunity to finish my master’s?” Mejia said. “I don’t know if my journey’s going to end getting my master’s when I know I can do more than just my master’s.”

“A Ph.D.? I don’t know, I could see that happening,” she added. “Because if I want it, I’m gonna go out and get it, no matter what.”

Said Cole: “For (Remi), it’s one more road block that she has to overcome. I say that with hope and optimism, but it’s scary for kids like Remi who’ve done nothing but contribute since they got to this country.”

And only time will tell if Mejia will be allowed to stay in this country to continue pursuing her American dream.

“We all immigrated to find a home, so we shouldn’t let that get taken away from us, especially when you consider a place a home,” she said. “The kids are our future, so we should always want the best for them. Imagine someone else like me, fighting right now to stay with their family. I’m 23 years old and I’m terrified that I might not be with my family. You don’t want that for yourself, and you don’t want that for anyone else.”

“Whatever’s happening right now, I know God is good,” she added. “I have a lot of hope and faith that things will go OK — that things will go to a positive way. I always have this positive mindset.”

A mindset that continues to serve her well.

— Reach reporter Mike Oxendine at 541-776-4499 or moxendine@mailtribune.com



Remi Mejia, center, spends time working at Kids Unlimited when she isn't on the basketball court for Southern Oregon University. Here she's with fifth-grade students Isabella Walter, left, and Osmara Alvarez. [ANDY ATKINSON/MAIL TRIBUNE]
Mejia, who went by Yaremi during here playing days at South Medford, drives against Central Catholic during the 2013 state tournament at the Rose Garden in Portland. [MAIL TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO]