Adopted Windermere siblings defy odds, graduate from Olympia High
Tori and Jayden Steele have defied the odds all their lives — most recently, that includes graduating from Olympia High.
| 8:20 p.m. June 22, 2017
When Jayden and Tori Steele walked across the stage at Olympia High’s graduation Friday, May 19, their mom couldn’t stop the tears of joy from flowing.
It’s not uncommon for tears to be shed as parents watch their children graduate. But for the Steeles, the tears also represented what had been a lifetime of uphill battles to get to that moment.
DESTINED TO BE VICTORIOUS
Twenty years ago, Melody Steele and her husband, Kevin, lived in Joplin, Missouri, with their two older children, Tristan and Sasha. They were also emergency/temporary placement foster parents.
Their life first changed when they took in Jayden. Their county had just completed a drug bust on a Friday evening, in which 15 children were removed from the home. All of the children were able to be placed with other family members, except for 4-month-old Jayden. Officers called Melody, trying to find a place for him to stay, and the Steeles took him in.
He was in rough condition, Melody said — he had cradle cap and was so covered in filth that it took three baths to clean him up.
That Sunday the Steeles noticed something was medically wrong with Jayden. He was crying, shaking, had trouble breathing and he wouldn’t eat. After a trip to the emergency room, doctors found that he was going through drug withdrawals. He tested positive for secondhand methamphetamine exposure and had valium and alcohol in his bloodstream. He spent the next 10 days in the hospital going through drug withdrawals.
Just four months later the Steeles got a call about a baby girl — Tori — at Kansas City Children’s Hospital, who had been born at just 24 weeks gestation, weighing 1.7 pounds. At the time Joplin didn’t have a neonatal intensive care unit, and Tori was given a less than 1% chance of survival. Melody remembers seeing her in an incubator with a blanket draped over it.
“The nurse pushed a rocking chair up behind me, and then she pulled the blanket off and when she did my legs just kind of went out underneath me,” she said. “They went to lift her up and she was not quite four pounds. I felt like I was in a slow-motion shock mode as they lifted her up with all the equipment still attached to her. They put her in my arms and I just kind of sat and looked at her. Next thing I know, I’m bawling.”
The Steeles didn’t quite know it then, but from that day forward Jayden and Tori would become part of their family forever.
“With kids, when you sit with one in the hospital at such a young age like I did with both of them, there’s a bonding that occurs that’s unlike that of with any other child,” Melody said.
And when the time came to name their new daughter, they chose the name Destiny Victoria.
That’s because, as Melody said, she was always destined to be victorious.
DEFYING THE ODDS
The challenges Jayden and Tori — both 20 now — faced wouldn’t end there, though. Jayden is on the autism spectrum and has dealt with intellectual and developmental delays, while Tori is legally blind and has cerebral palsy.
Getting them through school amidst academic and physical challenges hasn’t been easy — in fact, sometimes Melody has had to be their voice in fighting for resources to ensure that they succeed. Not all schools were on the same page in providing the same resources and level of support for Tori’s and Jayden’s individualized education plans.
“I became a parent, a teacher and an advocate all rolled into one,” she said. “Things aren’t always black and white as you see them. There’s always a story underneath.”
And when the Steeles moved from Joplin to Windermere two years ago, they had to learn their way around a new state education system and policies.
“We are probably the biggest cheerleaders and fans they could ever have, and it’s not just for them, it’s for every person who’s shattered the ceiling,” Melody said. “We don’t do ‘don’ts,’ and we don’t do ‘no.’”
A week before graduation, Tori was suffering from serious eye issues involving cysts under her eyelids, which forced her to wear special caps to protect them. She was prescribed steroid eye drops for the pain and swelling, but the drops had an adverse effect.
She spent a couple of days in excruciating pain and her vital signs were dropping, but the doctors couldn’t figure out why. Then, a neurologist identified the problem: The steroids had leaked into the fluid around her brain, causing swelling and pain.
Tori spent the rest of the week in the hospital, being flushed out with fluids. At 3 p.m. on graduation day, she still wasn’t able to get out of bed.
But a year prior, Melody and Kevin had had Tori write out a list of things she wanted to accomplish. Walking the stage at graduation was one of them.
“I was back and forth with the school, unsure if she was going to make it to graduation,” Melody said. “I ironed her gown in front of her. I sat on the side of the bed with her and said, ‘If I have to carry you across the stage we’re doing this.’ So we got her cleaned up and showered, got her gown on her in the parking lot and her sister put makeup on her in the car.”
Upon arriving at the CFE Arena, Olympia High staff met the family at the door. They had Tori and Jayden’s photos taken and hugs to go around. Melody told Jayden to hold onto his sister because he was her support — when the time came to cross the stage, he would let her go.
Both earned standard high school diplomas. Tori crossed the stage as a National Honor Society student with a 3.8 GPA, and Jayden with a 3.0. The tears began flowing when Assistant Principal Nick Zambri gave Melody a thumbs-up, as if to say “We did it!”
And, just as promised, Jayden walked down the hall and into the ceremony hand-in-hand with his sister. He would never let her fall.