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That Was Then ... This Is Now

Despite his mother's death and three months of homelessness his senior year, Robert Nguyen walked in Rogue River High School's graduation ceremony in 2007 and received his diploma.

One year after his graduation, Nguyen, 19, is working a full-time job and providing for his two younger sisters who still attend Rogue River public schools.

"Life is comfortable," Nguyen said. "It's a lot better than before."

The family rents a three-bedroom ranch-style house in Rogue River with Nguyen's wages from operating robotics equipment to place electronic components on circuit boards for Ascentron in White City.

A white 1998 Volkswagen Beetle sits inside the garage, a gift from a woman who was touched when she read Nguyen's story in the Mail Tribune, one in a series called "Grads Against the Odds."

Nguyen's life took a turn for the worse in 2006 when he moved from his father's home in San Jose, Calif., to live with his mother and five siblings in Southern Oregon.

Soon after arriving, the family was evicted from its home because Nguyen's mother, Shari Brimage, was ill and couldn't pay the rent.

To survive, the family camped at parks in Rogue River for three months. The children caught the school bus from the park to go to school. Nguyen studied at night at a picnic table near a street lamp. Some of the children sold their plasma to earn extra money.

In February 2007, Bassett died in the Medford motel room she had rented for herself and some of the younger children. The older children, including Nguyen, were staying with friends and relatives.

Nguyen, who was already behind in high school credits when he moved to Southern Oregon, fell farther behind as he took time off to grieve the loss of his mother.

But Nguyen was determined to earn his diploma. His mother's dream had been that he would graduate and go on to college. Both of her elder sons had dropped out of school.

When he crossed the final hurdle to graduation, he hatched plans to find a job and attend Rogue Community College. But without a vehicle, he wasn't sure how he would manage it.

After the Mail Tribune article was published, Nguyen was contacted by a woman who said she wanted to give him the Volkswagen Beetle. In return, she asked that Nguyen not disclose her name and that someday he would give a vehicle to someone else in need.

"She did it because at one time when her husband needed a car someone gave him one," Nguyen said.

A job offer came from Ascentron Operations Manager Mike Moynihan, who contacted Nguyen after reading the article in which Nguyen described his passion for collecting computer parts and reviving old computers.

"One day I read the newspaper and said, 'I want to get hold of that kid and hire him,' " Moynihan said.

Since his employment about a year ago, Nguyen has been promoted to the leader of his shift at Ascentron.

"Mr. Nguyen earned everything he's got," Moynihan said. "We didn't give him anything. We just gave him opportunity. He's done really well. I'm proud of him."

Nguyen hasn't yet enrolled in Rogue Community College, where he wants to study computer engineering. He hopes to begin attending classes in the fall.

Working at Ascentron has helped move him further toward his college goal because at his one-year anniversary of employment, the company will pay $2,500 per year of his tuition.

"We do that for all our employees," Moynihan said.

Nguyen also received about $1,500 in scholarships and donations last year that will help him pay for college.

"I'm not looking forward to going back to school because it's going to be a lot of work with my job," Nguyen said. "I just don't want to be where I am now. Someday I want to own my own house."

For now, Nguyen works swing shift Monday through Saturday at Ascentron. Sunday is his day off, a time to mow the lawn and cook a meal for his sisters, Megan Nguyen, 16, and Alyssa Hall, 13.

Megan, a junior at Rogue River High School, cooks the meals during the rest of the week.

Their home is filled with relics from the past with their mother, furniture that was placed in storage when they became homeless.

His sisters said the stability their brother has provided them has made life easier.

"No words can describe how amazing it is that he takes care of us," Alyssa said.

Megan's school adviser, Rhonda Baumann, who also was Nguyen's adviser, said her attendance is more regular.

"I brought up all my F's to B's and C's," Megan said. "I think it's just because I live with my brother. We have our own house. It feels safer."

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or pachen@mailtribune.com.

Robert Nguyen, 19, and his sisters — Megan Nguyen, 16, left, and Alyssa Hall, 13 — pile into a Volkswagen Beetle that was donated to Robert after he graduated from Rogue River High School in 2007. - Bob Pennell