By MARY CALLAHAN
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
On Veterans Day, a school holiday, Montgomery High School senior Alicia Sheerin headed to the mall like millions of other American teens.
At 17, Alicia loves dogs and art. She wears skinny jeans and dislikes school work, preferring to sketch or listen to music instead. She dreams — a bit whimsically — of owning a bakery for dogs one day, although she doesn’t bake.
She plays recreational soccer, basketball and baseball and takes theater class at a downtown playhouse.
Alicia is typical in so many ways, yet her life has been anything but, beginning in a government orphanage in the impoverished Central American country of Nicaragua.
She continues to face medical and educational challenges stemming from a little-known genetic disorder that causes tumors and developmental delays. She also has impaired sight in one eye because of a window over her infant crib that broke during a storm.
Yet Alicia has a smile like sunshine and an outlook on life that belies the difficulties she has faced.
Her mother, Kristine, describes it as “the gift of optimism.”
“I like to make people laugh,” Alicia says.
Born in the country’s capital, Managua, Alicia spent her first two years in a government orphanage.
Kristine Sheerin, a physical therapist, and Stephen Sheerin, a physician, were doing medical work in Nicaragua when they decided to start a family. After finding Alicia, they adopted a boy from Guatemala named Mateo.
The family had returned to Santa Rosa before anyone recognized that Alicia was suffering from a genetic disorder called Tuberosis Sclerosis that affects her ability to learn and makes her vulnerable to a variety of tumors and other problems.
She requires constant medical monitoring and has endured numerous surgeries, including a craniotomy to remove a brain tumor while she was an eighth-grader at Slater Middle School in Santa Rosa. The surgery affected her fine motor skills and confined her to a wheelchair for a while. “She has rallied after every one of those surgeries and pushed forward,” her mother said.
Alicia knows she’s fortunate to live in the U.S. because it allows her to get the medical screening and care she needs.
“It feels good,” she said.
But Sheerin’s parents also were eager to track down their daughter’s birth mother in case she also has the disorder, which can be fatal. Alicia met her for the first time in 2004, as well as two half-sisters and a half-brother who also live in Nicaragua.
“I was pretty nervous at first, but she seemed nice and sweet,” Alicia said of the woman who looks very much like her.
Alicia has been back to visit four or five times and has built an especially friendly relationship with an older sister with whom she is connected on Facebook.
She and her parents also volunteer with the nonprofit organization Seeds of Learning, through which they have traveled to Nicaragua during the past two summers to build schools in rural communities. Alicia likes to watch the young children so their parents can help with the construction, and she enjoys drawing Nicaraguan landscapes.
The visits have helped her learn enough about her native country and birth family to fill several thick scrapbooks with photos and information.
“She’s really a neat kid and resilient,” said Paige Warmerdam, Alicia’s part-time teacher at Montgomery, where she attends regular and special education classes. “She is joyful. She is eager to do well, which I think has been her driving force.”
But Alicia also is funny, Warmerdam said, with an infectious, nervous giggle and goofy sense of humor that crack everybody up.
She has seen a new maturity as Alicia prepares to be more independent and take on more responsibility.
“She’s at the beginning of this really big stage of her life,” Warmerdam said.
You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or email@example.com.
Name: Alicia Yoaska Sheerin
School: Montgomery High School senior
Family: Mother Kristine, father Stephen, brother Mateo, 14, and three half-siblings in Nicaragua
Born: Managua, Nicaragua
Volunteer Work: Seeds of Learning, non-profit that builds schools and improves education in rural Latin America
Hobbies: Drawing, music, “culture camp” in Minnesota where she learns more about her native country
Music: Pop and rock that has “a good beat to it”
Movies: Horror, comedy, romantic comedy
Future Plans: Santa Rosa Junior College group work transition program and group supported employment