Student conquers challenges to graduate


HAVING A BALL: For Adam Hank, playing on the basketball team was among the highlights of his four years at Cathedral Catholic High School. (Credit: Nikki Hank)

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SAN DIEGO — Adam Hank will graduate from Cathedral Catholic High School on June 1.

And his mother, Sharla, said she is “so incredibly proud.”

She recognizes the significant challenges that her 19-year-old son, a leukemia survivor with Down syndrome, has had to face — and overcome — to arrive at this happy day.

“He did this with his own will — his will to succeed — just as he has with everything else,” she said.

A graduate of All Hallows Academy in La Jolla, Adam Hank attended Cathedral Catholic through its Options Program. The program allows students with developmental challenges to complete a four-year modified program and earn a certificate of achievement.

The Options Program integrates students into the school community, including through general education classes and campus activities, while providing individualized instruction and pairing them with peer mentors who accompany them to their classes and provide one-on-one tutoring.

“I am feeling excited about graduating this year,” Adam told The Southern Cross.

He was diagnosed with leukemia in April of 2008 and underwent chemotherapy. It took three years for his immune system to recover sufficiently to go to school.

In November 2022, he was diagnosed with selective mutism, an anxiety disorder that renders a person incapable of speech when feeling overwhelmed. As a result, he had to study from home for several months as he took on this new challenge.

Sharla Hank said that, between the disorder and the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s been “a tough couple of years” for Adam. But she doubts that even her own friends would have been able “to just pick themselves back up” the way that her son has.

“I’m going to believe that it’s because of his faith and because of those around him that love him and that show that he can do many great things,” she said.

Throughout his four years at Cathedral Catholic, Adam has been a member of the basketball team. On Feb. 9, he not only played in his first varsity game, but even made the last basket in his team’s winning game against Madison High School.

“Similar to other facets of Catholic education, inclusion presents our schools and the students they serve with countless opportunities and challenges,” said Adam’s father, Michael.

When it came to his son’s “buzzer-beater basket,” he said, spectators who witnessed it saw “only the tip of the iceberg.”

“They had no idea that over the last 18 months, Adam had worked tirelessly to overcome anxiety that presented with stress-induced brain fog and uncontrollable, shaking body movements. … Those same fans had no idea that Adam had been working just as hard sitting on the bench as his fellow teammates who were playing on the court, because Adam was managing the stress of being surrounded by strangers in an extremely loud room.”

“Since that inspiring game,” said Michael Hank, “Adam’s anxiety has increased a little as he reflects on the end of the basketball season and the uncertainty of life after high school. In response to this time of increased intensity, Adam has had to distance himself from his school campus with the hope that he can return and graduate this June.”

Sharla and Michael Hank are also the parents of a 15-year-old daughter, Nikki, who is a sophomore at Cathedral Catholic.

They are advocates for individuals with Down syndrome and their families. The couple co-founded the nonprofit organization DS Action in 2008 and, through the Catholic Community Foundation of San Diego, established the Catholic Special Education Fund in 2016 to encourage and support inclusion in Catholic schools. More recently, Sharla was one of the presenters at “Beyond Inclusion: From Mission to Practice,” a conference on inclusive programs in Catholic schools, held April 19 to 20 at the University of San Diego.

“(The Hank family’s) story represents the power of parents who have learned and applied advocacy skills for their son to have the opportunity to move ‘beyond inclusion,’” said Rebekka Jez, assistant professor at USD’s School of Leadership and Education Sciences (SOLES) in the Department of Learning and Teaching. “At the conference, you could feel the exhilaration in the room as we watched the video of Adam making a point for the high school basketball team and the moment of pause as he and his mother shared about his dream to go to college.”

What’s next for Adam and his family?

Adam expressed a desire to study Computer Science, as well as an interest in being a lawyer.

Regarding the latter, he said that people with Down syndrome can “use their loud voices” to “advocate (for) themselves.”

His plans show the impact that his Catholic faith and education have had on his young life.

“My goals are to show people how they are loved,” he said.

Sharla said that her son’s experience at Cathedral Catholic gave him a desire to attend college.

“He may not be ready to independently travel to an out-of-state college for next year, but with his continued hard work and the Holy Spirit guiding him, all things are possible,” she said.

Noting that Cal State University, San Marcos  offers a program for students with developmental challenges, she said, “That’s a possibility for him.”

But not next year.

She said that Cal State San Marcos’ program is already full for the 2024-2025 academic year.

“Adam’s going to continue to trailblaze,” she said.

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