Walcott recognizes Hillcrest senior for overcoming adversity to succeed

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Jessica Alonso, the 18-year-old daughter of a Jackson Heights cleaning woman, refused to let a brain tumor or anything else stop her.

Having graduated from Hillcrest High School last week, Alonso is one of nearly 200 students who received the city Department of Education’s Chancellor’s Remarkable Achievement Award.

“Our Remarkable Achievement Award winners have demonstrated tremendous strength of character and determination to persevere in the face of adversity,” said city Schools Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott in a statement. “These students have overcome obstacles such as violence, abandonment, homelessness, language barriers and illness to graduate.”

Alonso’s successes won her additional recognition as one of 18 students singled out by Walcott in the department’s announcement of the awards.

When Alonso was 9, she broke her nose in a car accident in Mexico, leading to abnormal snoring at night and severe migraines. After months of medical tests, doctors told Alonso that she had a clival chordoma, which was a benign brain tumor.

“I missed a lot of school. I didn’t see my friends,” Alonso said. “I don’t let anything get me down. I always keep smiling.”

After two surgeries in late 2005 followed by two months of radiation, Alonso’s tumor was gone but her difficulties were far from over. Her surgeries left her unable to see, walk, balance and speak properly. Worse, Alonso could not swallow, preventing her from eating anything. Her only food intake was canned milk poured through a tube into her stomach.

Doctors said she could never eat again, but in December 2008 they let her try. Several sodas and sandwiches later, Alonso realized she was cured.

“I celebrate the day every year,” Alonso said.

Although the danger of the brain tumor returning persists, for now her health is restored and Alonso will begin a major in English at Queens College this fall.

Alonso has always found her strength in writing. She combated post-surgery depression and loneliness by writing down her story. She also publishes poetry online and keeps a daily blog of thoughts on life.

“You cannot keep everything bottled up to be happy,” Alonso said. “Writing is the perfect way to be happy.”

Her high school English teacher, Brian Panepinto, cemented her love for writing and inspired Alonso to become an English teacher herself.

“My dream now is to finish college, get some nice teaching job at some nice school,” Alonso said.

Alonso has also taken her dream and her indomitable, cheery spirit to other spheres of her life.

Her mother’s job in the cleaning industry does not bring in much money, but Alonso won her high school’s recognition when she initiated a large fund-raising effort for her class’s trip to Europe last spring. Together with her classmates and friends, Alonso raised $8,000.

“She’s always there to give a helping hand,” Alonso’s best friend, Kosta Tsakalos, said.

Alonso lives with her mother and two dogs in Jackson Heights.

Reach reporter Evelyn Cheng by phone at 718-260-4524.

Updated 11:09 am, October 12, 2011
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