Senior Spotlight: Kaily Cunningham, Apex High School
Apex High School
St. Petersburg Community College
Kaily Cunningham describes herself as a “human mosaic” because she learns something from everyone she meets. But others who know her see much more than that.
“Kaily is a beautiful reflection of her experiences. She is a person who takes those perfect and imperfect bits and pieces of life and makes them all part of a larger, dynamic image,” said Apex High English teacher Megan Fackler Bretz.
A Rough Beginning
Cunningham lost her father at a young age. Then she moved with her mother from New York to Apex in 2016, during middle school. It was a difficult transition in many ways. She kept to herself and got into trouble academically.
“I made dumb choices,” she said.
As she began 9th grade at Apex High, things were not improving. Due to excessive truancy and other challenges, Cunninham and her younger brother went to live with relatives through a kinship placement. The placement did not work out, but her aunt and uncle did help provide her the access to the mental health care she needed.
Cunningham moved back in with her mother during her sophomore year, and trouble re-emerged. She was not supported at home. Child Protective Services placed her with a court-appointed foster parent. Again, the placement was a bad fit.
“This was a dark time, but it pushed me to realize that my brother and I had to leave our mom,” she said. “I knew I would need to support myself and my brother, and in order to do that, I had to make changes.”
Turning Things Around
After that, Cunningham began attending school regularly. She started to care about academics. She knew her education would help her to be prepared for an uncertain future. She moved back in with her aunt and uncle. They supported her and helped her focus on staying mentally healthy.
“Every inconsistency in my life has helped to make me who I am,” she said. “Anyone could be struggling with any number of things. It is up to us to care for others and make each person and experience a part of our mosaic.”
PEAK, with the Emphasis on K
At Apex High, students and staff strive to be PEAK (Prepared, Engaged, Ambitious, and Kind). Cunningham’s teachers say she is an exemplar of the kindness piece of the equation.
“Kaily is one of the few students who will ask how I am doing and really listen to the answer,” said Bretz, her 11th grade English teacher.
Not only does Kaily care for her teachers, fellow students, and other school staff, at home she also cares for her younger brother.
“I realize my life has not been normal. I do not live with a parent. I have a foster care case worker,” she said. “People walk on eggshells around me because they are not sure how to treat me.”
Cunningham credits her own feelings of isolation to leading her to look within herself for strength. That is where she found her strong desire to make others feel their own worth and value. Despite her experience with a system that is often unforgiving, Cunningham always finds a way to share kindness and empathy with others.
“Kaily is a positive, energetic person despite her circumstances,” said Apex High School Social Worker Michelle Pittelli.
Cunningham is excited for the future. In June, her aunt, uncle, and brother are moving into a new home in Fuquay-Varina. In August, she will relocate to Florida, to live with her grandmother.
The move will allow her to start over in a new place and leave bad memories behind.
“You can't heal in the same place you got sick,” she said. Florida provides a blank slate Cunningham will use to rebuild, reimagine, and shape her future.
She also plans to enroll at St. Petersburg Community College and study English education. She hopes to be the kind of teacher who notices all of her students and provides a safe space for them.
“I have always had good relationships with school librarians and English teachers and I have found comfort in literature,” she said. “Books don’t change, even when life does.”