Kicked out at 16, this young Tri-Cities mother defied the odds to graduate high school

·6 min read
Richland School District

If you ask Emily Day what she takes joy in the most, she has a simple answer: Being a mom.

“The only thing I ever want to do is be around my daughter,” the 19-year-old told the Tri-City Herald. “That’s where I find my happiness and that’s where my whole world is.”

Day was one of 32 students who graduated this month from Pacific Crest Online Academy in Richland. The achievement marked a momentous occasion for the young mother — the precipice in a years-long battle.

It didn’t come easy. She and her boyfriend have struggled for several years with housing, food and financial insecurities — many of which started when she was only 16.

Though they’ve found stability and are celebrating their milestones, there may be more mountains ahead to conquer. Day also wants to focus on providing the life she envisions for her daughter, 2-year-old Octavia.

Early challenges

Day and her young family just recently stepped into a new housing situation after jumping between her mother’s and grandmother’s homes for more than a month.

“We’re building back up our foundation,” she said.

“My boyfriend kind of sees me as this fiery spirit that just kind of powers through everything,” Day said. “Everyone always refers (to me as) being very, very strong, although I’m more reserved and shy.”

Day’s family difficulties began when she was 14.

The summer before she was due to start her freshman year at Tahoma High School, her parents got into a messy divorce and the resulting debt forced her parents to sell her childhood home in Maple Valley.

“It was what I always knew to be home,” Day said.

While her mother left for the Tri-Cities, Day stayed on the west side with her father.

Tensions brewed between the two once he started dating. Between work and his social life, Day said she rarely ever saw her dad. And at the same time, he expected her to uphold the image of a “devout Christian,” something she struggled with.

Amid all this, she also contracted mono her sophomore year and began missing classes. Her father didn’t believe she was sick, Day said, due to what his religion told him. She was facing expulsion because of her truancy.

“His rule was if I wasn’t going to school, I couldn’t live at his house. So now not only was I not going to school, I was homeless,” she said.

She left her dad’s home in February 2019, taking only a small bag of her belongings.

“My immediate thought was just, ‘What am I going to do,’” she recalled.

A Tri-Cities move

Day’s boyfriend also faced the same obstacles with his family, and was eventually forced out his home.

“I always told my boyfriend, ‘We’re going to be OK, no matter if we think it or not. We just have to have faith,’” Day said.

But she had no car and no money. She tried working at the local Burger King, but found it difficult to show up to shifts on time because she was couch surfing and living in hotels.

Day soon found out she was pregnant. She reached out to her mother for guidance, and they ultimately agreed her family should move to the Tri-Cities — it turned out her mother was losing sleep at night thinking of her child wandering the streets.

“It was really intimidating,” Day said, since her mom was working through her own challenges with addiction, mental illness and fallout from the divorce.

Day found her own slice of home in the Tri-Cities and gave birth to her daughter at 5:54 a.m. on Christmas Eve 2019.

In the months that followed her pregnancy, the 17-year-old began to grapple with the fact that she would need to go back to school in order to give her daughter the life she deserved.

“Going to CBC and taking a couple tests wasn’t an option,” Day said, since she missed out on so much of high school. “It was actually really challenging to come to terms with the fact that I would have to go back into high school, but I did it.”

She enrolled at Richland High School before finding her place at Pacific Crest Online Academy. While she was skeptical, Day said it was the “best fit for my situation.”

Nancy Galliher, an English teacher at Pacific Crest and Day’s senior advisor, said she came into the classroom last fall and “immediately had this amazing, sparkly disposition.”

“I really had no idea what was going on. I probably knew her four months into (our) relationship before I even knew she was a mom,” she said.

‘Like I was family’

Galliher said “teachers are going above and beyond” at Pacific Crest to ensure their students have what they need to succeed in school and get a solid head start on life.

“I’d like to think we have a team of people who are just willing to help students grow — not just in content areas, but we’re there to help them break down barriers,” she said.

That can include directing them to resources and spending one-on-one time on subjects outside the classroom. Less frequently, it can also mean paying students’ internet bills or donating a meal.

“They just extended an arm out to me like I was family,” Day said.

Between working DoorDash and spending time with her daughter, Day committed to her studies and utilized every resource within reach. Students at Pacific Crest tend to thrive with the flexibility they’re given, Galliher said.

Galliher said she grew close to Day throughout her senior year. The two exchanged stories of their own personal trials: Galliher’s husband had to retire early in 2020 from teaching at Carmichael Middle School; he’s terminally ill with dementia and she cares for him.

“Student’s have unique stories, but so do I. When we’re allowed to trust one another and share those stories, I think that helps us realize that we’re more alike than different as human beings and we all have a story,” Galliher said. “I think that’s what the world needs more of.”

Galliher said while she may have lost a student in Day, she definitely gained a friend.

What’s next

Day said she doesn’t plan on going to college, but has been interested in photography and social media management.

“I’m big on not wasting my money and not putting it in places that are not necessary,” she said. “I don’t want to get my education in something I won’t apply to my life.”

The concrete coating company her boyfriend works for has offered her a job running the social media. She also wants to dabble in real estate photography so that she can bring along her daughter on photo shoots.

She said she’s also begun attending church again to get back in touch with her faith.