APTOS — Isabella Rose Stephens, or Bella as she’s known around Aptos High School, had a childhood that would break many.
Since she was 11 months old she has spent numerous nights, days and weekends at Dominican Hospital watching her mother undergo several immobilizing back surgeries — 13 to be exact. And her father has been absent from her life, too — she said he’s dealt with crippling alcoholism for the better part of a decade.
Though her childhood was filled with heartbreaking trips to the hospital and uncertainty at home, she said she learned plenty about the world and herself through the ups and downs.
“I think it’s made me into the person I am today,” she said. “Dealing with all that stress, dealing with [my mother’s] struggles and watching her grow, has helped me grow.”
Stephens on June 6 at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds graduated with a 4.06 grade point average (GPA) and an acceptance letter to UC San Diego’s molecular biology program.
She will be on the pre-med track when she arrives in San Diego, and hopes to become a surgeon — she will try to switch over to human biology in her first few months at the school.
Going into the medical field, she said, seemed natural after spending most of her childhood around emergency medical technicians, doctors and nurses because of her mother’s ailments, which stem from a fall almost two decades ago.
Aptos High School Principal Peggy Pughe welcomes her class of 2019 to its commencement ceremony on June 6 at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds. — Tarmo Hannula/Register-Pajaronian
Her mother’s health troubles and her father’s bouts with alcoholism forced Stephens to move away from Aptos for a time.
At 6 she relocated to Los Angeles to live with other family members because her mother went into a long-term rehabilitation center following spinal surgery. Two years later she moved back to Aptos to live with her mother, and for a time things were good. But over the years her mother’s health has continued to deteriorate, sometimes forcing the two to switch the role of parent and child.
“There’s been so many nights where I get home and she says, ‘I have to go to the hospital, I can’t feel my legs’ or something else is happening,” Stephens said. “Then I’m in the hospital until 3 a.m. and have to get up and go to school the next day.”
The loss of sleep and added emotional strain did not effect her performance in school or athletics in the slightest.
Along with excelling in the classroom, Stephens was a three-sport athlete for the majority of her time at Aptos. As a senior, she was the starting goalie for the water polo team in the fall and played basketball in the winter. She also served as the team manager for the football team — a role she took on after hanging up the helmet and cleats as a sophomore.
“Football was probably my favorite sport,” she said. “I love the sport, and working under coach [Randy Blankenship] really pushed me…The sport really created a huge family for me.”
When asked why the Aptos administration picked him as a representation of the school’s super successful athletic program, Hunter Matys couldn’t quite find an answer.
Isabella Stephens did.
“Because he’s a beast,” she said in jest as Matys let go a chuckle.
A three-sport athlete for the last three years, Matys graduated with a wide-ranging list of accomplishments from his time at Aptos.
In the fall he was the starting quarterback for the school’s football team, which won a section championship, earned the county’s first-ever state playoff berth and broke numerous records. In the winter he helped guide the basketball team to a league title and (was) a runner-up finish in the section playoffs. And in the spring he broke the school record in the 100-meter dash and placed at both section and state finals in the long jump.
Personally decorated mortarboards were a hot item for Aptos High. — Tarmo Hannula/Register-Pajaronian
All those achievements would not have been possible without having adults in his life who believed in him, he said.
His stepfather, Mike Sutherland, pushed him into basketball in middle school and shaped his game. Coach Blankenship spotted Matys — his athleticism, leadership qualities and toughness — in a pickup dodge ball game as an eight-grader, and convinced him to play quarterback. And track coach Zach Hewett exuded an overwhelming amount of confidence of how Matys’ raw athletic ability would transfer to running and jumping.
“I’ve had a lot of people believe in me — teachers and coaches,” Matys said.
In the fall Matys will attend Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo to run track for the Mustangs, which compete at the NCAA Division I level.
THE NEXT ‘CHAPTER’
Nico Vinuela first stepped on stage when he was in the third grade. He never thought performing would become a freeing passion that would dominate his time at Aptos.
“I don’t really feel anything when I’m [on the stage] now,” Vinuela said. “I feel like I’m no longer myself… I could’ve told you what I felt maybe in my sophomore year, but now I just kind of forget who I am.”
Vinuela over the last four years has performed in nine of the school’s plays/musicals, served as a director in one production and was the president of the drama club. On top of that, he also held a 4.2 GPA and was the secretary of the associated student body (ASB) as a senior.
Vinuela said he never felt as if he was overworking himself. He was simply filling a vacant role.
“I try my best to exemplify what I believe should be expected of people,” he said. “I don’t do anything that I believe is going way above and beyond. I do what is right. I get involved and try to help people as much as I can.”
This Aptos High School senior rejoices with friends prior to graduating. — Tarmo Hannula/Register-Pajaronian
And that drive to help people pushed him into his next “chapter.” In the fall, he will attend Cal Poly-SLO to study journalism.
He does not plan to perform in college. Instead, he wants to use the power of storytelling to shed light on people’s struggles.
“I want to tell people’s stories if I can,” he said. “I want to be a voice for the minority.”
A LIFE OF SERVICE
It would be almost impossible to find an event or fundraiser at Aptos that Bailey Ellis was not involved in.
Ellis for the last two years served on ASB — this year as president — and spearheaded several of the school’s dances, assemblies and philanthropic efforts.
“Ever since I got to high school I knew I wanted to be involved,” she said. “I didn’t exactly know how when I first got here, but once I found out we had an ASB program I instantly fell in love.”
One of her favorite campaigns she helped organize: Empty Bowls, a fundraiser for the Second Harvest Food Drive, in which people can buy a ceramic bowl made by an Aptos High student and enjoy soup and bread meal from the Pajaro Valley Unified School District’s Culinary Arts Students.
“That has always intrigued me, working with people and helping people,” Ellis said.
Orlando Calderon has fashioned a baby mask of his cousin, Anthony Cardenas, who was one of the Aptos High grads. — Tarmo Hannula/Register-Pajaronian
Ellis in the coming years would like to continue serving people. She plans to attend Cabrillo College, study environmental science and become an advocate for the planet.
Her passion for the environment was passed down from her father, Richard, a teacher at Saratoga High who would take her on long hikes from a young age.
She said her favorite hiking location is Big Basin.
“There’s something special over there… to know how small I am compared to everything there, but the fact that I can make a difference in all the trees that are getting cut down,” Ellis said.