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'She could have given up'

Crystal Tarbell, then 16, closed her eyes and pretended to sleep as Maslow Project staff approached her where she lay in the shade of a tree in Hawthorne Park.

She’d been using the organization’s services since she was 11 years old and was ashamed to have Maslow staff see she'd chosen this way of life.

They left her a cup of applesauce and a water bottle — her only meal of the day unless another homeless person offered to share his or her food with her. If she got thirsty, she could always binge on free water at Taco Bell.

Tarbell slept during the day because it was safer, and she walked around town or loitered around 24-hour venues, such as transfer stations and laundromats, at night. 

She kept a change of clothes from Maslow Project, as well as her phone charger and any additional food she happened upon, in her gray backpack the nonprofit organization had given her.

Her parents and family would have welcomed her home anytime. But home was a motel room where her two parents, three sisters, brother, two nieces and several other “adopted” siblings lived.

“I felt like it would be easier for all of us if I gave them one less thing to worry about,” Tarbell said.

“I tried to avoid my family because I didn’t want them to think that I was doing something wrong,” she said, adding that she would only return to the motel, posing as her identical twin sister, to shower when they were out. “I didn’t want them to think that they made me go out there and stuff like that.

“I chose to be there. No one made me do it.”

That was Tarbell’s sophomore year. She started her junior year at North Medford High School with only three high school credits and her backpack to her name. On Saturday, the 18-year-old senior will graduate from Central Medford High School with a 3.25 grade point average — the highest GPA in her school — and two scholarships to Southern Oregon University.

“I’m so excited to be done,” she said. “I did something no one else thought I could do. That’s the best part. And I did it at the top of my class. I’m valedictorian, and I … (finished) early.”

For her valedictorian speech, Tarbell will talk about something with which she has firsthand experience: struggles and perseverance.

All told, Tarbell has attended 17 schools and lived in at least 10 houses, the longest for 10 months, and numerous motels, the longest for a year, she said.

Tarbell was born in Medford and, like her parents, attended Jackson Elementary School. Her family later moved to Indiana and Ohio but returned to Southern Oregon when she was in the sixth grade and lived for a short time with her aunt before moving into a motel in Phoenix.

“My parents didn’t make enough to pay rent and the utilities, and with five kids, it was difficult,” she said. “Or sometimes we had the money, but we just needed an extension, but they weren’t willing to give it.

“At one point, there were 11 of us living in one motel room,” she said.

Her parents slept on one full-size bed, while her two older sisters, two young nieces and her sister’s boyfriend shared the other. Her twin sister slept between the two beds, her brother was against the wall, and she and her best friend were on the floor in the closet.

“It was crowded at times, but it just made us closer,” she said, recalling the holidays spent in a motel. “My parents were trying the best they could, and since their rental history wasn’t as good, it was difficult to find a house for such a large family.”

The parents, who have held various jobs over the years, owned a microwave, small fridge and an electric skillet.

“You can bake anything on an electric skillet,” Tarbell said. “But if we made pork or chicken, the room would smell like that for two days.”

When she did go to school, Tarbell said she got good grades.

She’d ride the city bus or go with her mom to work at 4 a.m., and then her mom would drop her off at school after work.

“It was difficult to wake up in the morning,” she said. “I couldn’t set the alarm loud because it would wake everyone up.”

During her freshman year at South Medford High School, Tarbell’s beloved aunt was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer and died six months later. Following her aunt’s death, Tarbell became even less motivated to go to school — she had since transferred to North Medford — and, after an argument with one of her teachers, dropped out with only a month left in the school year.

It was shortly after that Tarbell and her best friend started living on the streets and not going to school. Tarbell made some decisions and got into relationships — some for protection — that she now regrets.

“I didn’t want to be stuck in that world, so I started going to school,” she said, adding that Fallon Stewart, a Maslow Project case manager, enrolled her at North Medford and later connected her with Hearts With A Mission, a shelter for homeless and at-risk youth.

Hearts With A Mission life coach Chelsea Flood, who conducted Tarbell's intake interview, had been her camp counselor in middle school at Wilderness Trails, a nonprofit, Christian camp serving youth from difficult backgrounds. Tarbell said she and Flood spent more than three hours catching up.

On Sept. 16, 2014, Tarbell spent her first night at Hearts With A Mission.

“I was really excited because they gave me sheets and a blanket, and they let me pick them out,” she said. ”I slept so good that night. The best I’d ever slept. I felt so prepared the next day.”

Tarbell realized it was a temporary situation, but “it didn’t matter if it wasn’t going to be mine forever.

“It was going to be mine for now,” she said.

“I had someplace to put my backpack. I didn’t have to carry it all the time. And I could shower and not worry about the hot water running out,” she said.

Tarbell hadn’t eaten a full meal in so long that food made her sick, but the staff at Hearts With a Mission encouraged her to eat.

“That place can make you fat, that’s for sure,” she joked.

A month later, Tarbell, who “can’t do big groups of people," enrolled in Central Medford High School, which is much smaller — about 238 students as opposed to the 1,608 students at NMHS last year.

“It was difficult to get back in a routine where I was doing homework and doing work and talking to people,” she said.

“I was overwhelmed. I was overwhelmed a lot, but I loved it every day. I was happy to come to school,” she said.

Tarbell took about eight credits last year, and 12.75 this year. And between her junior and senior years, she traveled to Uganda, where she helped in medical clinics, painted houses, planted trees and taught at orphanages and met the little Ugandan girl she is sponsoring. (Maslow Project helped her arrange an art show in Ashland to raise money for the trip. Waters Edge Community Church in Talent and other donors also helped.)

“(Tarbell) really is one of the most exceptional kids I’ve ever met,” said Central Medford Principal Amy Herbst. “She could have given up pretty easily. We see a lot of kids do.”

Herbst said Tarbell attended summer school and managed to make up more than three years of credit in less than two years.

Tarbell admits she wasn’t a star student from day one. In fact, she describes herself as a “lil’ hellion” who would argue with her teachers and fall asleep in class, exhausted from working between 15 and 43 hours a week at KFC during her junior year.

“The teachers don’t give up on you,” she said. “They don’t. They refuse to. If you’re tired enough to fall asleep in class, they don’t wake you up right away, but then they wake you up, and you still have to do the work.”

One of Tarbell’s favorite teachers, Gabrielle Headings, described her as the “full deal.”

“(Tarbell) worked hard,” Headings said. “You only run into about three of these in your entire teaching career. ‘These’ being the kind of students you don’t have to push.”

"When I help a kid, I sometimes have to give them a little bit of my own fire, but with Tarbell, she had her own fire burning. She just needed direction," Headings said.

Tarbell plans to study psychology and art at SOU with the hope of becoming an art therapist one day. She’ll be working at Wilderness Trails as a camp counselor and lifeguard this summer and, when she starts school this fall, wants to live with a friend from Hearts With A Mission in an apartment in either Medford or Ashland.

“I’d say, ‘Long story short,’ but there is no short way to say my story,” she said.

Reach education reporter Teresa Thomas at 541-776-4497 or tthomas@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/teresathomas_mt.

At right, Central High School valedictorian Crystal Tarbell credits several adults, including teacher Gabrielle Headings, with helping her to succeed. Mail Tribune / Denise Baratta