Holley Van Schouwenburg always planned to go out of state to run in college. It looked like it was going to happen, too.
She had offers from colleges in multiple states, and although a mysterious health issue had impacted her running, she was dedicated to figuring it out.
Then, she was on her way to Disneyland to celebrate her 18th birthday when she received an emotional phone call from her father. It didn’t look like her stepmother was going to survive a brain aneurysm, and Van Schouwenburg needed to come home.
Not too long later, Van Schouwenburg was in the same hospital where her stepmother told her she needed to take care of her nephew and father.
“Then, after my mom passed away — I just, I can’t leave my dad,” Van Schouwenburg said. “I feel like it is more important to be here and take care of him. At the end of the day, it’s just a college and it’s four years. But my dad has to spend the rest of his life without the person he loves. I want to make sure he’s OK.”
Jennifer Van Schouwenburg died in November after the hemorrhaging of a brain aneurysm. Holley Van Schouwenburg put her own health issues on hold as she helped her family deal with the loss, took care of her nephew, prepared meals and made sure bills were paid — all while attending her senior of high school.
She’ll graduate Wednesday from Timpanogos High School in Orem.
Van Schouwenburg has run cross country and track at the varsity level since her freshman year. She has also played soccer, is a part of the Family, Career and Community Leaders of America, teaches in her high school’s preschool, rides motorcycles and surfed when her family lived in California.
She started getting stress fractures during her junior year as she increased her running mileage. Then, that fall, her body started going numb when she’d run.
“It would start in my fingers and toes and it feels like when your hands and feet fall asleep,” Van Schouwenburg said.
She started throwing up and passing out after races. She took a break from running and returned her senior year for with the same issues. She was diagnosed with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, or POTS, a disorder where one’s heart beats faster and blood pressure drops when they stand up because their blood stays in the lower part of their body.
But the treatment for POTS wasn’t making things better, only worse.
Doctors now think she might have diabetes.
“It has just been a crazy year,” Van Schouwenburg said. “Everything that could have went wrong, went wrong.”
Van Schouwenburg had trouble eating and threw up daily after her stepmother’s death, which Van Schouwenburg thinks might have been from the stress.
Jennifer wasn’t just Van Schouwenburg’s stepmother. She was also her best friend and a strong supporter of Van Schouwenburg’s running career. Jennifer would drive her to 6:30 a.m. practices in the summer before the teen got her driver’s license and would tell her stepdaughter before races to “prove them wrong, run strong,” a mantra Van Schouwenburg has put inside her two state rings.
Jennifer would help her with boyfriends, or with hair and makeup for dances.
In the hospital, when she knew she wasn’t going to make it, Jennifer wanted to make sure others would be OK.
“She just wanted to make sure that everyone else was taken care of and that was very much Jennifer,” Van Schouwenburg said. “She would always do everything for everyone.”
Jennifer’s organs went on to help dozens. She had previously donated a kidney to her friend.
It was her stepmother’s selfless life that led Van Schouwenburg to make the decision to attend Utah Valley University in the fall.
“I think her mentality of always giving has really helped me,” Van Schouwenburg said. “This decision wasn’t hard because of that.”
She kept her grades up through the challenges of this school year. Van Schouwenburg is a straight A-student, according to Holly Dahle, her counselor at Timpanogos High School.
“She takes on a lot of responsibility at home that most kids don’t have to worry about,” Dahle said.
Dahle said the teen has been pleasant to work with, has a resilient attitude and has been a great advocate for herself who communicated with teachers when she went through tough times.
She’s excited to see her graduate.
“She is one of those kids where you look at them and you say she 100 percent deserves this,” Dahle said. “She has completely earned this.”
Van Schouwenburg wants to become a child social worker, a desire she thinks stems from her past. Van Schouwenburg said she lived with her birth mom, who used drugs and alcohol and was neglectful, until she was 6 years old. She’s been raised by her father since then, and her birth mother is not involved in her life.
“I feel like there is such a need for people who can relate to those kinds of kids,” Van Schouwenburg said.
She’s been finding things that help her get less sick when she runs. She’s learning how to treat her symptoms so she can compete in college. She knows it would be easier if she didn’t run in college, but Van Schouwenburg said she knows her stepmother would want her to.
Besides, as Van Schouwenburg said about her decision to stay in high school during a tough year, it would be harder to quit than to keep trying.