Editor’s note: Every year, The Herald Journal profiles one graduating student from each valley high school. Profiled students are selected by administrators at the schools.
WELLSVILLE — As far Dave Clark, a counselor at Mountain Crest High School, is concerned, “you just don’t get better than the Willets family.”
Wellsville residents Brenda and Jed Willets have maintained a positive attitude while persevering through whatever challenges life has brought at them, whether it be raising twin sons with cerebral palsy or coping with the near tragic automobile accident of two of their other children.
Both children involved, Tyler and Jenna, were able to survive the accident, which took place in September of 2016. Jenna Willets will be among the nearly 320 Mountain Crest High School students who will graduate next week.
It took more than a year for Willets to make close to a full recovery from her injuries — to this day, she still suffers occasional headaches — but she has maintained a positive attitude throughout the entire process. When asked about the 18-year-old’s demeanor, Clark and fellow Mountain Crest counselor Amy Nielson immediately talked about the “big smile” she greets those she comes in contact with.
“You just don't get any better than Jenna,” Clark said. “She's got a heart of gold. … Like I said, she's got no enemies whatsoever. Everyone loves her (and) that's what impresses me the most, is just really who she is (as a person).”
That “heart of gold” has been evident whether Willets is helping with special needs children, engaging in humanitarian projects, participating in the animal sciences certification program at Bridgerland Technical College or assisting Mountain Crest students who struggle with truancy, among other things.
Simply put, Willets cares a lot about people and animals, to boot.
“She is genuine, and that to me is what describes Jenna is whenever you talk with her, interact with her, she is very kind and genuine, and truly cares,” Nielson said.
That care factor intensified when Willets traveled to Cambodia last summer for a two-and-a-half-week service project with the nonprofit organization Humanitarian Experience For Youth. While in Cambodia, the daughter of Brenda and Jed Willets helped build classrooms for a school.
“It helped me realize just how fortunate we are here in the United States,” said Willets, who participated in a fundraiser for the trip. “We got to see the kids every day there and the circumstances that they lived in … and it was amazing compared to here how different those circumstances are.”
Willets was all set to join HEFY for a project in Jordan next month, “but all the trips got canceled because of COVID-19. I was so excited, but it is what it is. It’s OK.”
The Wellsville native has spent the 2019-20 academic year making new friends while serving on Mountain Crest’s “peer court.” The school first instituted this organization last spring in an effort to help students who struggle with things like truancy, smoking, drugs, fighting and poor grades. Willets and her fellow Mustangs in the peer court help come up with a list of items for students who battle with various issues to fulfill, “and if they keep their promises they would be able to move on from peer court.”
“I’ve been able to see other people that I normally wouldn’t hang out with,” Willets said. “I’ve been able to spend time with them and understand them more. … I started saying hi to some people that I probably wouldn’t have ever said hi to. And then all of the kids on there with me who were a part of the peer court, they were awesome. We all kind of figured it out together because we didn’t really know what we were doing at first. It was pretty cool.”
Having the opportunity to impact the lives of others is something Willets is extremely grateful for. After all, she is lucky to be alive after breaking multiple bones — a fractured pelvis, sacrum, left fibula, TI vertebra and multiple ribs, among other things — and suffering a mild brain injury during the aforementioned accident.
Willets was 14 years old at the time when she was traveling in a Ford pickup truck with her then-17-year-old brother Tyler. Tyler Willets turned east onto State Road 101 into the path of a semi traveling northbound on U.S. Highway 89/91. Both teenagers were flown to Primary Children’s Hospital and were released after six days.
Tyler Willets’ injuries were even more severe than his sister’s, as he also broke several bones, plus suffered a lacerated liver, a collapsed lung and had more serious head injuries. Tyler Willets recovered well enough to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and he also recently got married.
Jenna Willets contended with lingering side effects from her injuries throughout the remainder of her freshman year and into the 2017-18 academic year. She ended up dropping a math class, which was a difficult pill to swallow for someone who was a straight-A student in middle school and junior high.
Notwithstanding her newfound struggles, Willets was just happy to be alive.
“I’m so fortunate, so blessed, because we shouldn’t have survived that,” she said. “And we were out of the hospital so quick, like six days. We should have been there a lot longer than we were, but just a lot of miracles happened.”
To the delight of Clark, Willets was able to get back on track in school and will graduate from Mountain Crest with a 3.7 cumulative GPA. Indeed, Willets finished strong academically, even while taking several concurrent enrollment classes during her time as a Mustang.
“She's determined, she's motivated,” Clark said. “Even when she was dealing with being dizzy and not being able to think straight through school, there was nothing stopping her. She rarely would complain, but you knew (the accident) affected her for probably not just that school year … but even into the next school year too. … Yeah, she'll be extremely successful in whatever she does.”
Nielson concurred and raved about Willets’ indomitable will.
“To me, she just has kind of like a quiet confidence, like she knows who she is and she knows what she wants, and she's going to get there,” Nielson said. “… It's going to take her far because she's very good at what she does when she puts her mind to it, and I think she knows what's important and how to interact with people.”
Willets is ready and excited for the next chapter of her life but has also cherished her four years at Mountain Crest.
“The staff at Mountain Crest is amazing (and) we have the best teachers,” said Willets, who enjoys reading, drawing and rock climbing in her spare time. “They genuinely care about the kids, and I love that. I loved how all of my teachers didn’t only care about our grades, but they cared about what was actually going on in our lives. The student body is awesome too. Everybody at Mountain Crest is super inviting … and everybody’s really kind to each other.”
When asked about her future plans, Willets said she is mulling over a few different possibilities. The 18-year-old would like to finish her animal sciences certification at Bridgerland this summer “so I could go get a job at a vet clinic or something like that.” Willets plans on furthering her education at Utah State University, but she might not enroll until the fall of 2021 because she is contemplating attending New Horizon Beauty College in Logan. Additionally, Willets is strongly considering becoming a special education teacher.
“I haven’t decided yet, but those are my maybe plans,” said Willets, who was a manager for Mountain Crest’s girls basketball program as a sophomore and competed as a thrower on the track & field team as a junior.
Working with special needs children is something that’s always been a consideration for Willets, who said “they are some of my favorite people in the world.”
“It’s helped me be a more understanding and compassionate person,” said Willets, who is the third of six children. “I try to see things from different perspectives because our life with (16-year-old twin brothers) Brady and Bradley, it’s so different then anyone else’s lives. And everybody’s lives are different.”
Having that kind of perspective is what makes Willets — and her entire family, for that matter — special, Clark said.
“With her brothers, I think sometimes you think that that can drag them down a little bit and that can wear on them, having two brothers to take care of that can't take care of themselves,” he said. “But their family's not that way at all. They just embrace it and they love those kids.”
Mountain Crest will hold its graduation on May 27 and 28. Seniors will have the opportunity to walk across the auditorium stage with their family present, one family at a time. Also, a virtual graduation will be available on Mountain Crest’s website on May 28.