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Park 2020 senior overcomes tragedy to graduate with help of school staff 'family'
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Class of 2020

Park 2020 senior overcomes tragedy to graduate with help of school staff 'family'

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RACINE — Class of 2020 graduate Jaysean Speaks has lost a lot in the past six months, but at Park High School he gained a surrogate family which is determined to help him get through it.

Speaks and his mother moved to Racine from Mississippi in his junior year. He decided to move to Racine with her, where she have lived previously, because he didn’t want her to come here alone.

“It was the best decision I ever made,” Speaks said.

Speaks was a safety on the Park football team, made friends and formed close bonds with several members of the school’s staff.

“The teachers at Park put more effort into helping you learn and helping you figure out what you’re doing,” Speaks said. “They try their best. They gave me 100% every time I needed help.”

Francesca Cariello, who was a substitute physical education and health teacher at the time, met Speaks in her health class at the start of his junior year.

“He always had headphones on,” Cariello said. “I went over and sat on the edge of the desk and said, ‘I know that you have potential and I believe that you can do this. I need you to believe in yourself. I need you to get your headphones off.’ ”

From that day forward, the two formed a bond, Cariello said.

Cariello later promised his mother, who had been diagnosed with cancer, that she would do whatever she could to help him graduate. In February, when his mother died, Cariello and her fellow educators rallied around Speaks to support him as best they could.

They brought him food and gave him money; teacher Wendy Farrell, who shares an office with Cariello, gave him a place to stay when he returned to Racine after his mother’s funeral in Mississippi. Teacher Kim Peterson helped him keep his grades up, and football coach Morris Matsen assisted Speaks in obtaining his first scholarship to play college football.

“It made me feel like if I know I need anything or any assistance, I can always call them,” Speaks said. “To me now, they’re family. They stepped in when I needed someone the most.”

The Park staff members feel the same way about Speaks.

“I might not have given birth to him, but I call him my other son,” Cariello said.

She described Speaks as “kind, gentle and a pure soul.”

“From the day that I met him, he captured my heart,” Cariello said.

Farrell called Speaks a “genuine guy” with an infectious smile who “shined as an athlete” and proudly represented Park on the football team.

The women both expressed pride in Speaks making it to graduation, despite the global pandemic and personal tragedy.

Ending the year from afar

After schools were close due to the pandemic in mid-March, Speaks took a bus to Mississippi to spend time with family, thinking that he would return to Racine when classes started again. When in-person classes were canceled, Farrell sent Speaks the work he needed to complete in order to obtain his diploma from Park High School.

The past several months for Speaks have been filled with loss. After losing his mother in February, Speaks’ father died a few weeks ago. And just within the past week, the college in Minnesota where Speaks had committed to playing football canceled fall sports due to COVID-19. As of last week, he was looking into other colleges where he might be able to play.

“Losing my mom, it just made me want to go harder in everything that I do,” Speaks said. “But losing both my parents it made me stronger as a young man to go out and do what I always wanted to do.”

That list of things included graduating high school, then college, playing professional football and one day becoming a coach.

“My parents, they raised me to always strive to be great and to never give up,” Speaks said. “I feel like I’m paying them back by graduating high school, going to college, continuing what they always wanted me to do and what they raised me to do.”

Speaks is still in touch with his Park family, and they intend to be there for him into the future and continue to help him through this difficult time. He said he “could not thank them enough.”

“We’re committed beyond graduation right now,” Farrell said. “Our commitment to him is not going to stop.”

“My parents, they raised me to always strive to be great and to never give up. I feel like I’m paying them back by graduating high school, going to college, continuing what they always wanted me to do and what they raised me to do.” Jaysean Speaks, Park High School Class of 2020

“My parents, they raised me to always strive to be great and to never give up. I feel like I’m paying them back by graduating high school, going to college, continuing what they always wanted me to do and what they raised me to do.”

Jaysean Speaks, Park High School Class of 2020

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Reporter

Caitlin Sievers covers education in Racine County with a primary focus on Racine Unified School District. Before moving to the Racine area she worked at small papers in Indiana, Illinois and Nebraska.

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