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A Challenge To Herself

For most teenagers, the end of the eighth grade is momentous because it marks the transition to high school.

But 17-year-old Ashton Kayser's last days in middle school were memorable because she lost her mother to methamphetamine.

"I didn't really think about going to college until then," said Ashton, who graduates from South Medford High School on June 7. "I knew it was an option, but I never thought I knew what I wanted to do. When my mom died, I decided I wanted to do something with psychology."

As a psychologist or addictions counselor, she said, she hopes to help save others from her mother's fate.

Not wanting to waste any time in achieving her goal, she asked South Medford Principal Kevin Campbell during her freshman year if she could graduate a year early.

Campbell looked skeptical, but Ashton proved herself, earning 8.5 credits her sophomore year. Twenty-four credits are required for a diploma from the Medford School District, an average of about 6 credits per year.

Boasting a GPA of 3.75, she will receive her diploma June 7 after spending only three years in high school with a hectic schedule and plenty of hard work.

She plans to go to Southern Oregon University in the fall and major in psychology. She's the first in her family to go to college.

Since Ashton was 8 years old, her mother, Wendy Sunseri, was addicted to methamphetamine. She became involved in the drug after becoming addicted to pain medication she took for a back injury.

The mother and daughter lived with Ashton's grandmother, Julie Johnson, who tried to provide her granddaughter with some stability amid Sunseri's erratic behavior.

"When someone is addicted to drugs they don't care who they're hurting or what they have to do as long as they have the drug," Ashton said.

Sunseri died of an overdose of methamphetamine and methadone on May 15, 2005.

Instead of spiraling into depression and destructive behavior, Ashton used her pain as fuel to end the cycle of addictions in her family and give herself a productive and meaningful life.

"Addictions run in my family, and I wanted to be the first person in the family not into that and do something to help other people in the Rogue Valley because it's such a big problem here," Ashton said. "It's epidemic."

For her senior project, Ashton wrote a paper and created a Power Point presentation about the effects of meth and what it did to her mother.

She was also one of six students who created a public service announcement for a Southern oregon Meth Project contest as a part of their senior Contemporary Issues class. The students won first place, earning air time for their video on KOBI-TV NBC 5. It was first aired May 12. Seniors Jacob Henrichs, Adam Fowler, Alex Enriquez, Bradley Miller and Andy Kautz worked with Ashton on the project.

"Some people don't know what they're getting into and before they know it, they're hooked," Ashton said. "I think it'll impact the students more because it's not an adult telling them; it's other students," she said.

In order to graduate early, Ashton had to take classes during the school's optional early bird period as well as online course.

Tapping her passion for reading, she served as library aide one year during the early bird period, recommending books to students and doing other clerical duties.

"She had to work independently in a very self-directed way because there weren't enough periods in the day to graduate early," said Barbara McCormick, Ashton's counselor.

"She has really challenged herself."

Ashton also worked at a job at the same time, earning some work experience credit toward her graduation at an internship at Nui Kai pet store in downtown Medford during her sophomore year.

During her sophomore year, she was in school from 7:45 a.m. to 4 p.m. and then, went to her internship before beginning her homework.

In the summer, she volunteered every day at the Southern Oregon Humane Society.

"One dog at the Humane Society was so scared she wouldn't come out from under a desk," Ashton said. "I sat with her every day and pet and brushed her. By the end, she would walk with me with no leash, follow me around and run to me whenever she heard my voice."

During the last year, she's worked at the Roller Odyssey in Medford five days a week.

After work, she does her homework until she falls into bed, she said.

Many days she survived on three hours of sleep.

"If I finish my homework, I have to do online work," she said.

"Sometimes I would go skating for a couple of hours to relieve stress, but every time I would do that I could feel myself slipping behind."

To finish out high school this year, she took an online health class along with Algebra 2, Honors American Studies, English 3 and English 4, Contemporary Issues, Economics, and Spanish 4.

She won the Fairy Godmother scholarship from the Rogue Valley Manor Foundation for $1,000 to $2,000 per year for two years, a four-year Horatio Alger scholarship for $5,000, $1,000 Bridge of Dreams scholarship through SOU and a $3,000 annual four-year scholarship from the Medford Rogue Rotary.

She said she feels prepared for college because of all of the discipline she's developed during high school.

"Too many people have watched me since my freshman year when I said I wanted to graduate early for me to fail," she said. "My grandma has really set on me to do this. I have to get it done. There is no option."

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

Seventeen-year-old Ashton Kayser wrote a paper and created a Power Point presentation about the effects of meth and what it did to her mother. - Bob Pennell