QUINCY -- Cheree Spears learned at a young age the importance of resilience in facing challenges and compassion in caring for others.
Part of the Class of 2019, Spears graduated from Quincy High School on Friday night, crossing the stage with 375 of her 416 fellow graduates participating in the ceremony.
"I'm going to stay driven and focused on what and who I want to be," Spears said.
That means focusing on others and providing a listening ear just as she's done since childhood.
When a beloved aunt died when she was in third grade, her parents took in Cheree's three cousins to live with her and her two brothers.
"The first thing I remember of that day being told she passed away was to stop crying and be strong for your cousins," she said. "That was a big thing. It kind of shaped me to how I am now, how I care for others."
The blended family worked its way through the transition -- "it was weird at first because they were always part of our lives, but now it's like they're part of my everyday life," Spears said -- and learned to build a new life together.
By junior high, Spears was facing another challenge in dealing with vitiligo, a rare condition which causes patches of skin to lose pigmentation and increases her risk of skin cancer.
"Junior high is when people start looking for relationships and noticed I was different. I was picked on a lot, but there's really nothing I can do to stop it," she said. "If somebody bullies you for your clothes, you have the chance to change your style. I can't change my skin pigmentation."
Some trusted teachers helped her cope with the bullying, inspiring her own desire to become a high school English teacher and offer the same help for others.
"I want to be there, like they were there for me, for other students," Cheree said.
As a way to stay positive, she focused on her studies and her love of learning at both the junior high and then at QHS and looked for ways to make positive changes for other students.
"Popularity isn't a big thing for me, but I know what I went through, and I don't want others to go through that, so I make myself as welcoming as I can to other students," she said.
At QHS, she was part of the Peer Assistance and Leadership, or PALs, program, partnered with a student facing challenges and building a relationship, started the Friends Club with a fellow student this school year to provide "a safe place" for students, and was part of the inclusive Sparkle Squad.
Spears also played clarinet in band, was involved in Beta Club and National Honor Society and worked as a cashier at County Market.
"I won't say it's easy for me to make friends, but it's easy for me to go up to someone and introduce myself," she said. "You never know what someone's going through. That little greeting could help someone."
She plans to carry that philosophy onto her studies at John Wood Community College, then at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.
"I hope to have a group of people understand I'm here to talk to," she said. "It can be scary to talk to about adults your problems. Going to someone you trust or a family member can be scary too."
But she learned that it's important to seek help to talk things out.
"Find someone to talk to. Use the resources you have -- PALs, teachers, counselors. It took me all the way to senior year to figure that out. It's not too late," she said.