Operation Graduation: Da'ja Simmons' determination

Operation Graduation: Da'ja Simmons' determination

NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - A New Orleans high school senior who rose above an obstacle that would have devastated most kids her age is now set to graduate at the top of her class.

For Da'ja Simmons, perseverance paid off.

You would be hard-pressed to find someone as excited as Simmons about finishing high school.

"I cannot wait until I graduate," Simmons says. "I've been thinking about what I'm going to do when I walk across the stage."

As she looks ahead, she reflects on her last five years at Cohen College Prep in New Orleans.

"I don't think I would be where I am right now if I hadn't come to College Prep when I did. When I first got here, I was so far behind coming from my other school. I couldn't do basic math," Simmons says.

Now, she will likely be this year's valedictorian after an incredible journey.

"Everybody has a story to tell," Simmons says. "But it's up to you when you want to tell that story."

Simmons' story came to light four years ago when she faced perhaps her toughest lesson in life outside the walls of Cohen. In 2011, Simmons' life was turned upside down.

Her mother, Terry Woods explained, "My husband lost his job and I was the only one working. After he lost his job, where I work, they dropped my pay down and it got kind of hard and I couldn't manage it on my own."

Carissa Kolakauskas, a social worker at the school at the time, found out about Simmons' struggle.

"She was living with her big sister and her family and everyone was living in the same house and when her sister lost her housing, Da'ja and her mom had nowhere to go," Kolakauskas said.

Woods says she tried to comfort her daughter.

"Like I told her we're considered homeless because we don't have nowhere to go, no where to live," Woods said. "But we will at least have a roof over our head every night. We won't be out in the cold."

Simmons and her mom were forced to move into the Salvation Army Shelter. It was a secret Simmons kept from everyone at school while remaining an honor student and drum major.

The principal of Cohen College Prep, Rahel Wondwossen, has nothing but praise for Simmons, who she says never missed a beat.

"You have to have incredible perseverance to keep working that hard when you're going through so much at home," Wondwossen says. "She always made school her priority. Did everything we asked of her."

"I'm glad that it did happened," Simmons says. "Because if it didn't happen when it did, I wouldn't know how to handle situations like that."

Her determination still shines today. Simmons applied to 23 universities and has already been accepted to at least 10 of them. She has a jump on college, spending half of every school day taking college courses at Bard Early College Center in New Orleans.

Simmons realizes the possibilities are endless beyond graduation.

"Ever since I was small, I always wanted to be a doctor," she says. "I most definitely want to give back to the community. That's the number one thing I want to do. I also just want to give back to my momma because without her, I wouldn't be here doing all this."

She says she know her unimaginable struggle has made her stronger.

"You have to struggle to see the light," Simmons says, wiping away tears. "I feel like anything that comes easy is easy to lose."

Simmons graduates May 28. She has decided to stay in Louisiana and attend the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. She visited a lot of schools, but decided to stay close to home and at a university that's more affordable, with her TOPS scholarship.

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