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23 years later, B.C. mom graduates from high school

Channi Gonzales received her Dogwood Diploma last June after deal with sons
Channi Gonzales went back to school and got her Dogwood Diploma 23 years after dropping out at 14. (Colleen Flanagan/The News)

Lead by example is a motto in Channi Gonzales’ family.

But, when the single mother of two boys, aged 11 and 14, sat them down to give them a pep talk about the importance of school, her youngest son said something that made her take a second look at her own life.

He told her that it was interesting to hear about how important school is for them – meanwhile, she didn’t even graduate from high school herself.

“That’s a kick to the stomach,” said the 38-year-old, who, 23 years after dropping out, just received her Dogwood Diploma.

Gonzales, who was born in Clearwater, and grew up in Ladysmith, explained she dropped out of high school at the age of 14.

She was always a smart child, she said, but her attendance was poor, and when she made it to school she found it difficult to focus.

There was drug abuse and addiction in her family.

“At periods we were left homeless,” claimed Gonzales, adding that sometimes they were even living out of their car.

She fell really far behind at school and was often bullied, she said, because of her appearance – not having nice clothes and wearing shoes that were duct-taped together.

Then one day she returned home to find the house in shambles and her parents and younger brother gone. She was declared abandoned, and put under the care of the Ministry of Children and Family Development. She moved from foster home to foster home, as her extended family was unable to take her in, and was put into the Youth Independent Living Program.

She eventually found herself holding down three jobs and trying to keep up with school. So, she dropped out.

“Going back was something I always planned to do. Much sooner than 23 years. I never thought it would take that long,” she said.

But, as Gonzales says, life kept happening.

A dual United States citizen, she went south to join the U.S. Army, but was diagnosed with lupus – a disease when your own body’s immune system attacks the tissues and organs – and was dismissed.

Then she travelled to San Diego, where her future husband was living, but found herself in an abusive and controlling relationship. Gonzales said, he had control over her passport, and made her help him steal people’s mail and cars. After getting caught cashing cheques under somebody else’s name, Gonzales found herself with a 93-day jail term.

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Two years after being released from prison, Gonzales was finally able to return to Canada, with her first-born baby, one box of clothes, a backpack, and no money.

She moved in with her grandmother who lived in Maple Ridge in 2009, where she was able to regroup and start creating a stable environment for her family.

The day she had the sit-down with her sons, Gonzales said they made a deal. Gonzales agreed to find a program and go back to school, with a promise from both her sons that they would have to try their very best to achieve good grades.

“It was hard going back,” said Gonzales, especially because, life kept happening.”

Rents skyrocketed and her landlord sold the house she was renting, forcing the family, which now included her mother as well, as her father passed away in 2017, to move. Gonzales was paying $4,000 a month in rent, up from $2,000. She was also on disability, with no child support payments.

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She went back to school in January 2021, taking math, English, and biology, and graduated in June 2023.

When she graduated, her sons, who are now 13 and 17 years old, told her how very proud they were of her, and her oldest even cried, she said.

Gonzales is hoping to eventually continue her education at the British Columbian Institute of Technology to become an MRI technician. But, she is planning to start a career as a paramedic first.

She wants her story to inspire others who are thinking about going back to school, but are too frightened to take the first steps. If you are working towards something positive, school is a good distraction from life, she said, because life will keep on happening no matter what and school can propel you to a better place.

“You can just exist or keep living,” said Gonzales. “I’d rather keep living and having forward momentum instead of just being stuck in one place.”

Channi Gonzales went back to school and got her Dogwood Diploma 23 years after dropping out at 14. (Colleen Flanagan/The News)

Colleen Flanagan

About the Author: Colleen Flanagan

I got my start with Black Press Media in 2003 as a photojournalist.
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