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North Gwinnett art teacher perseveres through tragedy

SUWANEE - When Debi West received the Georgia Art Educator of the Year award Friday from the Georgia Art Education Association, she said the honor wasn't about her; it was about her students.

"They push me to be the best that I can be," the North Gwinnett High School teacher said, "and I hope that I push them to be the best that they can be."

West said she doesn't teach art. She teaches students, guides them, helps them develop the skills to paint and draw and sculpt. She uses visual arts to help students document the world they way they see it.

"They make magic happen in here every single day," she said. "To be privy to it, I feel very, very blessed."

West, who became a teacher after a stint as a graphic designer, said she wants to inspire - and be inspired - every day.

This year, her students - along with her husband, Chuck, and daughter, Carson - have inspired her to keep living in the wake of a heartbreaking event: the death of her 11-year-old son, Croy.

"I really did not think I would be able to continue - continue to breathe, to walk, let alone teach," West said, nearly four months after Croy's death. "I had two choices. I could sit at home and curl into a ball and cry myself to death ... or I could continue to be a role model for my 150 students and my daughter."

'Living with a broken heart'

It's understandably difficult for West to talk about her son's passing. Croy, who died July 15, had a urea cycle disorder, a genetic disorder caused by a deficiency of one of the enzymes in the urea cycle responsible for removing ammonia from the blood stream.

The urea cycle involves a series of biochemical steps in which nitrogen, a waste product of protein metabolism, is removed from the blood and converted to urea, according to the National Urea Cycle Disorders Foundation Web site. Normally, the urea is transferred into the urine and removed from the body. In urea cycle disorders, the nitrogen accumulates in the form of ammonia, a highly toxic substance, and is not removed from the body, resulting in hyperammonemia. Ammonia then reaches the brain through the blood, where it causes irreversible brain damage, coma or death.

While she is "living with a broken heart," West said her students have saved her life.

"I can get through my days because of them," she said, adding that she gets 30 to 40 hugs every day, as well as supportive text messages and notes.

Despite her sadness, West presents a strong front to her students.

"I think an art room should be a safe place for kids to come," she said. "It's uncomfortable to see sadness."

Her daughter does not like to see her cry, but West said it's difficult to keep the tears at bay at night and first thing in the morning.

Candice Dalton, a senior in one of West's Advanced Draw/Paint classes, said she thinks her teacher is very strong.

"Through everything she's gone through, she's kept a smile on her face," Dalton said.

Dalton said West is one of her favorite teachers. West helps her students find their own niche in art and pushes them to do their best, she said.

"Every award she's won, she's definitely deserved," Dalton said.

West, who previously taught at Sugar Hill, Rock Springs and Level Creek elementary schools, was named the 1999 GAEA Elementary Level Art Educator of the Year, the 2001 Southeastern Art Educator of the Year, the 2005 National Elementary Art Educator of the Year and the 2005 Gwinnett County Teacher of the Year.

Katie Ragan, a junior, said she has been surprised at how well West has handled her son's death.

"Croy was probably the happiest kid I had ever met," she said. "When I heard about Croy passing away, my heart dropped to my stomach. I was very upset about it.

"(West is) keeping everyone together," Ragan said, "when she needed to be kept together."

A new path in life

Recently, West has encouraged her students to use their art as a fundraiser, asking them to donate half of the money they raise to the National Urea Cycle Disorders Foundation in honor or Croy.

As she moves forward, West said she wants to raise awareness of urea cycle disorders and the connection between undetected metabolic disorders and autism. Croy, who was autistic, underwent therapy seven times a week, and West believes the early intervention helped her son.

While West talks about the new path she's on, she reaches for her necklace, inscribed with her favorite Bible passage. A memory card for Croy contains a verse from Proverbs: "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your path."