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Local Teen Goes From Jumping Off Pier To Leaping Into The Future

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Posted: Thursday, June 19, 2008 12:00 am

Mar Vista High School graduate Helen Silvia, who nearly lost her life to a childish prank four years ago, turned her life around and graduated with 3.94 grade point average.

In some ways, Silvia hasn't changed much in the last four years. The pretty blond teen is a bit taller and speaks with a quiet, calm confidence as she looks you straight in the eyes. She is a bit more eloquent than the shy freshman of a few years ago. She still has the same easy smile, perpetual tan and athletic build. But in other ways, the mature young woman of 18, who graduated in white (with honors) from Mar Vista High School on June 12, is a completely different person.

As an eighth-grader at Mar Vista Middle School, Silvia was on the fast-track to trouble. She hung out with a group of friends that included pot smoking during their recreational time. “I was a pretty rebellious kid. When I hit fourth grade it really started. I felt like my dad was just uber-protective and I couldn't take it anymore. I disrespected all my teachers and cut class all the time,” remembered Silvia. “I was just so lost and confused at that time of my life.”

Her father Michael Silvia added, “I was having a real hard time with her then. Every day would be a struggle to get her home. I was so worried about her.”

Silvia's teachers were confidently predicting a dead-end life for the teen. “When I was in eighth grade, one of my teachers asked the class, ‘Who wants to go to college?' I raised my hand. The kid behind me pointed me out saying, ‘Look who has her hand raised.' My teacher stared at me and said, “I fully expect to see you in four years behind the counter at the Jack-in-the-Box asking me if I want fries with that burger.”

It is a sweet victory for Silvia to have proven that prophetic putdown wrong and no one is more surprised and delighted than she. In the fall she will attend the University of California at Santa Cruz on a $23,000 scholarship. Silvia says she is thinking about majoring in environmental science. She is the first one in her family to go to college.

Silvia graduated with a college-weighted GPA of 3.94. Along with a Pell Grant and a Cal Grant, she has received the Bank of America Academic History Award, a Parent Teacher Student Association scholarship, MASD Future Teacher Scholarship and a Drinkwater Family San Diego Foundation Scholarship. While at Mar Vista, she took AP classes, participated in four years of water polo, swim team (as captain during her senior year) and one year of cross country. She graduated wearing a Poseidon Academy sash. She has served as a volunteer with WiLDCOAST, learned to surf and become a certified lifeguard. She has been hired this summer by the city to guard the beach.

“I think about what that teacher said all the time. No one believed I could go to college. I had been labeled: I had an attitude and a low self-esteem problem.” In a way, Silvia feels that, in some ways that comment helped to spur her on. “I guess I still have a rebellious streak in me, but I just express it differently now,” said Silvia.

Silvia points to a cold winter night in 2004 as the moment that began the turnaround in her life. That year, on Jan. 18, Silvia's rebellion came to a head; she and three of her friends decided to jump off the Imperial Beach pier. “We were just hanging out smoking some weed and somebody said ‘wouldn't it be cool to do something like that?' It just sort of grew from there. There were a lot of people we knew on the pier. We skated down to the pier and the four of us walked up to it and stepped out over the railing. I started to get a little nervous at that point, but all of us were going to jump together and it just never entered my mind that anything bad could happen. I never thought I couldn't swim back in,” Silvia remembered.

What started out as a dare among four friends turned into a night of terror that, thanks to an off-duty lifeguard, changed the course of at least two of the kids' lives.

Matt Wilson, an off-duty guard who just happened to be walking his dog along the beach at the same time the teens jumped, estimates the surf was between 6 to 8 feet that night, water temperatures were around 56 degrees and by 7 p.m., with no moon, things were pretty dark. “It really was pitch black,” said Wilson.

Within minutes the three teens were struggling for their lives. “When I hit the water, I tried to swim in, but the waves were just too big. I didn't know where my friends ended up. I couldn't really see anybody else. I ended up holding on to a piling. I was so cold I didn't even feel the mussels and barnacles cutting into me,” said Silvia. Getting out of the water she saw her arms were covered in blood. Today, she can still see the scars where the shellfish lacerated her skin.

Alerted to the situation by bystanders, Wilson quickly let himself into the lifeguard tower and got his gear. Exhausted from his day job cleaning boat hulls, Wilson was nervous about attempting a rescue. After calling 911, he decided there was no time to waste.

Gathering a few quick facts, Wilson found out that at least three people between the ages of 12 and 13 (a boy and two girls) were in the water in the area of the lifeguard tower at the surf line. The fourth student, a girl, chickened-out at the last minute and instead, attempted to reach her friends by entering the ocean from the beach. She was beaten back by the surf and ended up watching as Wilson proceeded to rescue her three friends.

He remembered, “For about two seconds I panicked. Then the sequence kicked in. My first reaction was to call for help. I [should have had] at least four guards to help me. I really thought that the kids would already be dead. It was just huge surf that night.”

For 30 minutes Wilson fought waves, cold and fatigue but finally succeeded in rescuing all three, a feat which later earned him several accolades including the Kiwanis' prestigious Nathan Hale Award.

“I was glad I got to all of them, but I was so angry. The last girl was about 10 seconds away from drowning. Probably the closest call I've ever had. At one point, all I thought I was going to pull out of the water were dead bodies. And I was so tired, I was putting myself in danger,” he said.

Silvia reflects on that moment with mixed emotions. “Sometimes I think; that was pretty stupid. But, in other ways, I don't regret it. Because, if it wasn't for what happened, I wouldn't be here today. It was a real eye-opener, it kind of shocked some sense into me. But what really made me change was that first summer of Junior Lifeguards. ”

As punishment for the pier jump, all three were required to perform community service for the city of IB. Through Wilson's efforts, the teens ended up serving their time in the IB Junior Lifeguard program. “I was so embarrassed that first session. I felt like everyone was looking at me like, ‘Those are the kids who jumped off the pier,'” Silvia recalled.

During the program she ended up meeting Mar Vista teacher John Ashley, who spoke to her about the Poseidon Academy Program at the high school. The Poseidon Academy is the state-funded, 13-year-old creation of teacher Mario Olmos, a fulfillment of his dream to have “the best marine science program in California,” a special school-within-a-school. The academically rigorous curriculum requires students to take two additional years of science and provides opportunities for students to experience sea life in a hands-on setting.

During her freshman year, Silvia started laying a new foundation for her life. With Wilson, (who is also a teacher at Mar Vista) as her mentor, Silvia plunged into her studies and sports. Gradually old friendships and influences faded away. “The last time I got high was in ninth grade. This creepy guy tried to follow me home in his car. That totally freaked me out and I thought this is the last time I ever want to feel this way. I guess what saved me was that I just got so busy. Between water polo practice and trying to keep up my grades, I didn't have time to do anything bad. I lost sight of and forgot about those kinds of things. They are a waste of time and lead you nowhere.”

Silvia advises teens who feel like they are stuck in a dead-end lifestyle to get involved in other things. “Some kids have been going through the motions for so long; it's hard for them to get out of that way of life. If I could say anything to them, I would ask them, “What do you like to do other than hang out at the beach and do nothing?” They need to find a formal activity with other kids that like to do the same thing and stay busy.”

Now, each year on Jan. 18, Silvia and her dad go out with Ashley Hedrick, (a junior at Mar Vista and one of the other teens that jumped) and celebrate. “We call Matt and thank him and say we are thinking about you. I guess that something bad has turned into something good.”

As she thinks about her future, Silvia hopes she will be able to make a difference in the world. “I want to be one of those people that research alternative energy methods to try and conserve our fuels,” she said.

She is looking forward to the adventure and challenges that lie ahead of her. “There are so many places I would like to go. I want to see what else is out there. I love IB and want to come back one day, but I don't want to stay here and do nothing. So many people I know are just afraid to leave this bubble, leave their comfort zone. I want to go out into the world and see everything.”

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