Editor’s note: Due to early deadlines related to the Memorial Day holiday, the Herald-Times will publish photos from this weekend’s high school graduations on Wednesday.
When Eli Dilts was in second grade, all of his parents’ hopes for him — going to college, getting a job, growing up to be a good person — were put on hold.
At age 7, he was diagnosed with stage 4 medulloblastoma, a very aggressive brain tumour. The following year he underwent surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation therapy and had to relearn how to walk, talk and swallow. His mother and father, Angela Loewe and Jeremy Dilts, threw their other worries out the window and prayed for one thing: that Eli would survive this.
Even after five years, when Eli’s cancer was officially considered in remission, his family had no idea how normal he could live.
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This weekend, Eli will cross the stage with 384 other seniors at Bloomington High School South’s graduation. The ceremony will take place Saturday at 9:30 am in the high school gymnasium.
“It’s a moment we’ve been praying for so hard, for so long,” Loewe said. “Now that we’re here, it feels really surreal.”
A dream come true
Eli, who lives with some side effects of cancer but has been in remission for years, lives a fairly normal teenage life. He is funny, smart and yearns for independence. Sometimes he says he tells his family he doesn’t like Bloomington or high school, but he almost always jokes. Like most teenagers, he has mixed feelings about graduation.
“I’m really excited but not super excited at the same time,” he said. “I’m excited because I won’t have to hear the two security guards yelling at me to get to class.”
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Eli and the school’s resource officers, along with principal Mark Fletcher and other school staff, have a close and pleasant relationship. Every morning, Eli liked to come into the main office and banter with secretary Kelly DeMier and others.
“There’s probably not a single adult in South who doesn’t know who he is,” Loewe said.
The group that made the biggest difference in his life, however, was the Unified Athletics Team, which combines students with and without disabilities.
Even at the age of 7, Eli was known for his athleticism. So when he got sick and couldn’t play on traditional sports teams anymore due to balance issues, he felt lost.
“I think it was a bit difficult for him to find his new identity that didn’t revolve around sports,” Loewe said. “In his freshman year, the school created the Unified track team, and he got to be on an athletic team again for the first time. It was just an amazing game changer for him.
Along with shot put and long jump, Eli has made a loyal group of friends across the team. And, perhaps most importantly, he was able to fulfill a childhood dream.
Before he got sick, all Eli really wanted to have in high school was a letter jacket. After his diagnosis, he assumed it would never happen. He should let go.
Then, at his junior year’s awards banquet, he received a college letter. It changed the way he saw himself.
“Right after I left the hospital, the kids looked down on me because I couldn’t do everything they could,” he said. “But now that I have a college letter, I don’t feel like I’m looked down on anymore.”
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Now and in the future
A few years into high school, Loewe still wasn’t sure Eli would be able to live independently as an adult. Last summer, when Eli got a part-time job at Walmart, his perspective changed.
“We didn’t really help him at all,” she said. “He went online, he applied, he went to the interview and he came away with a job offer. Whatever he did…it showed he was capable of presenting himself in a way that made him seem employable and reliable.
Eli is probably one of Walmart’s most trusted employees. He arrives 45 minutes before each shift and has never missed a day of work unless he is sick.
After graduating, he will continue to work at Walmart during the summer. Next, he would attend culinary school at the Hoosier Hills Career Center, pursuing another childhood dream.
Before the cancer, Eli occasionally made desserts with his grandmother, but never gave it much thought. He wanted to be a policeman or in the army.
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Over the years, however, he had to let go of those dreams and started cooking more. He cooked meals with his grandmother, baked Christmas cookies with his mother, and attended cooking camps for several summers. It became his passion.
Eli’s parents want him to attend Hoosier Hills before moving on to another school to make sure he’s okay on his own. He still can’t do some things and he doesn’t have a driver’s license yet. Even in remission, he is considered alive with a traumatic brain injury.
But he is dedicated to living a normal life. No matter what path he takes, Loewe said, she’s just glad he got to this point.
Watching a child graduate from high school is emotional for parents. For someone like Eli, it’s even more special.
“It wasn’t promised,” Loewe said. “For him to get here is probably my most emotional moment as a parent. We’ve all fought so hard to get here, and now that it’s happening… I can’t believe we’re here.
Contact Christine Stephenson at email@example.com.