Thu | Aug 24, 2017

21 and strong

Published:Sunday | January 10, 2016 | 1:00 AM

HARVARD, Nebraska (AP):

Kevin Medrano has seen a lot in his 21 years on earth.

The middle child of seven siblings, the 21-year-old paraeducator at Harvard Public Schools is fulfilling the dying wish of his mother, Ruth Elizabeth Guevara, by rearing his two youngest siblings, Samantha (Sam), 17, and Oscar, 14, on his own.

After obtaining legal custody of the pair through the court system in December 2014, he was suddenly elevated from older sibling to legal guardian. Residing in a home rented from his grandparents, he feels he is living out the role he was born to fulfil.

"I've always been the responsible kid compared to my siblings," he said. "My mom was always sick, so I knew someone was going to have to take care of the kids. I was expecting it. I knew that nobody else would take care of them the way I would, so I stepped up and filed for custody."

As ready as he could have been under the circumstances, the dramatic change in family dynamic nevertheless came swiftly and without warning. Having never known his father - who died when he was still an infant - he was raised almost entirely by his mother and older siblings. His stepfather died in 2008.

After struggling with illness for years, Guevara's condition turned from stable to grave in less than a day on Aug. 11, 2014. More than a year later, her passing still seems surreal to the family.

"It was just so quick," Medrano said. "The disease got to her so quick. In the morning, she was OK. Then she went into the hospital at Mary Lanning. (Next) Sam calls me and says she's getting transferred to University of Nebraska Medical Center, and when we got there, an hour later she was gone."

She was 43.

Though anticipated, her final request that he care for his two youngest siblings hit him extremely hard in the moment.

"I cried because I knew she was ready to go," he said. "We were pretty close. Since I never had that male figure in my life, I'd always followed her. I would help fold laundry, iron clothes .

"Once I got into my teen years, we didn't see eye-to-eye all the time and there were little fights and all, but the month she passed away, those were the best days. We never argued. It was good."

His resolve to fulfil her final wish is matter-of-fact and ironclad, he said. Thrust into the role of father and mother, he sees his newfound vocation as his destiny.

"I'm capable of doing it, I know I am," he said. "It's just easy to me. I can put my life on hold and make sure they get the best before I go on.

"It's kind of weird because I've always known that I was a special kind of kid. I was always above my capability of understanding things and problems ahead of me. When I was little, I remember pretending I was older. People say I'm the oldest 21-year-old out there."

Though hardly a troublemaker growing up, Medrano was always looking for ways to portray himself as older than he was. The first to have his ears pierced in sixth grade, he brazenly insisted his mother accompany him to the tattoo parlour at age 17 to provide the necessary consent to undergo tattoos.

He second-guesses that decision today, doubting if he had it to do over again that he would choose to go through with it. He feels fortunate that both his former employer at the local convalescent home and Harvard Public Schools were able to look beyond his unconventional appearance and hire him based on his character and ability to relate to people.

"I liked the art and I got some tattoos," he said. "If I could go back and change that day, I wouldn't have the tattoo on my arm. Maybe it wasn't a smart choice, but I'm very thankful at the job opportunities I've had and that they (employers) have looked past my images and looked at what I can provide instead of what I look like."

As a paraeducator working with fourth-graders, he has become a fixture in the life of Maggie Fields, a wheelchair-bound little girl with severe physical disabilities who communicates solely with her eyes. Using eye-controlled assisted technology, she has become a favorite among her classmates, who frequently compete for the chance to push her around campus in her wheelchair.

To Fields and her parents, Danelle and Thad (both teachers at Harvard), Medrano has been a godsend. His ability to communicate and educate their daughter is nothing short of remarkable.

"I was very nervous at first," Medrano said. "I didn't know if she was going to like me because they told me she's very picky with her people. Looking back, I was nervous for no reason.

"Since day one, we've gotten along. I understand her more than everybody else. At the beginning, I would ask people questions about her. Now they come to me because I'm the one who knows more about her now."

Asked if she considers him her favourite, Maggie smiles as she looks to the word "yes" taped to the armrest of her wheelchair. Medrano feels the same way, he said.