Maintain balance

McCORDSVILLE — Her father guesses Sara Shelton was about 10 when she began helping her younger siblings with homework. Completing the laundry and dishes followed. Then, the elementary school student began making dinner for the family.

Gradually, she began to fill the gap her left by her mother, who died when Sara was just eight years old.

Fawndelynn died after a battle with cancer that spread to her brain and eventually most of her body, leaving behind a husband, Sara and her two siblings, who were 5 and 3 at the time.

Her dad, Robert Shelton, worked long hours as a contractor and became the family’s sole provider. Her siblings, Eric and Emily, needed help with homework. The house needed to be cleaned.

Robert never asked Sara to take on those responsibilities; she just did. And it’s helped keep their family together through tough times, he said.

For almost a decade, Sara has juggled responsibilities far beyond those of your average high-schooler, taking on home duties that don’t typically fall to a teenager.

The extra responsibilities — helping her brother with math homework, making her little sister lunch — didn’t hold her back or delay her studies. Last week, she received the diploma she finalized in December, one semester earlier than most of her classmates. Next year, she’ll head to Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis to study psychology.

It hasn’t always been easy, she said. She spent one year in the school’s color guard before walking away from the activity she enjoyed. Other activities were short-lived, too; she just didn’t have time for them. She didn’t spend Friday nights in the stands watching football with her peers. And she didn’t hang out with friends often. She stayed in when her friends were out to help her siblings.

Sara said she guessed she matured quicker than other kids her age. She doesn’t know many high school kids who come home from a day full of school to cook, clean, give homework help and then finish their own school assignments.

But she doesn’t talk about her experience with a tone of regret. Eric and Emily drive her to be successful. Sara wants to be a good role model for them, as her late mother would have been, she said. And they’ve always come first.

“My siblings are my world. I’d do anything to help them and keep them happy,” she said.

So she’s worked hard — she wasn’t a straight-A student, but she graduated a semester earlier than planned.

She hadn’t planned to graduate before May, but she had her main courses completed. Finishing up a semester early allowed her to pick up a job, which is helping bring money into the household, and focus more on her siblings before she starts college. She’s spent the past five months working full time at a retirement community in Indianapolis.

Balancing school work and her home life was becoming more stressful. Now, she can focus on what’s ahead: pursuing psychology to become a counselor.

At school, most of Sara’s teachers didn’t realize what she was juggling at home, she said. She didn’t complain much, completed her assignments on time and wore a smile.

Treasure Coonce, the school’s attendance secretary, worked alongside Sara — who worked as an aid in the office — for months before she knew her mother had died, and she was helping to raise her siblings.

She’s had a different life and mindset than many of her peers, Coonce said. Loving and caring for her siblings has been a priority in Sara’s life. She would do anything for her family.

“I applaud her because even though she has a lot of responsibilities on her plate, she has pretty big goals for her life, too,” Coonce said.

Shelton couldn’t be any prouder of his recent graduate, who has always stepped up to help wherever needed. She’s managed good grades, stayed out of trouble and been an excellent role model to Emily and Eric, he said.

She started helping with little things at home but now practically runs the house, balancing her family’s schedules, cooking meals, keeping the house clean and helping with homework. He said he’s thrilled she’s decided to commute to college next year so she’ll still be home to continue helping to raise the youngest.

“I don’t know what I’m ever going to do if she moves out,” he said. “I got so lucky with her.”

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Samm Quinn is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3275 or squinn@greenfieldreporter.com.