Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Duluth High School senior Zachary Bellier, 18, who was born with spina bifida and hydrocephalus plays a board game called Social Skills with his teacher Tiffany Borders and fellow classmates in Duluth Wednesday. Despite Bellier's many challenges he will be graduating with his class on May 23 at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.
SUGAR HILL -- Zach likes an audience.
He's got a Casio keyboard: a big plastic 25-pounder that sits atop a sturdy, two-legged stand in the living room. It's the Cadillac of keyboards. All the bells and whistles. Zach makes music, squealing with delight.
Naomi likes learning.
She devours books, numbers, facts. She draws spreadsheets, brainstorms, seeks the best possible outcomes. She's leaving this summer to attend Rice University on a full, four-year scholarship. She's the picture of gratitude.
Though they attend different schools, have different friends, different interests and lead entirely different lives, they share common ground: supportive families, a positive outlook on life and the strength of character to overcome tough personal obstacles.
As Zach Bellier, 18, and Naomi McAllister, 17, prepare this week to cross the stage with Gwinnett County Public Schools' class of 2013, each student carries memories of their own private trials. Overcoming adversity is an experience they share with more than 10,500 other soon-to-be graduates of the local district.
Often, it's the very thing that helped build character, urging them along.
'I should be on the radio'
The keyboard stand sways under pressure as an ecstatic Zach pounds away at the black and white keys.
It's a somewhat atonal melody with high-spirited notes: a cross between lullaby and staccato marching music. His dad, Straider, leans over Zach's shoulder, suppressing a smile, pushing a button.
A fast-paced drum beat clicks and thumps from keyboard speakers, and Zach bobs his head to the digital metronome, rocking in his wheelchair. "Uh-huh!" he croons, pointing fingers to the sky, shifting in his chair: a jovial dance.
The looping drum beat stops abruptly, and Zach turns his head to look over his shoulder. "That was fun, huh?" he asks his listeners.
Looking back toward the musical synthesizer, he peruses a list of preprogrammed instrumentals emblazoned on the face of the keyboard. From the "100 Song Bank," he selects Number 00: "There You'll Be: (Pearl Harbor Theme)."
He turns his head again, giving his living room audience a charming smile. "OK ... you guys wanna hear this?"
The young man was born with spina bifida and hydrocephalus -- a medical condition in which there is an abnormal accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid in the ventricles or cavities of the brain.
"At birth, they thought he wouldn't be able to talk," his father said. "The doctors thought he wouldn't make it very far, but to see him continue to achieve has been really exciting."
As the owner of an export business, Straider works from home, which helps him in assisting his son around the house.
The Belliers live in Sugar Hill, but Zach takes a bus to Duluth High School, because of the learning facility's accommodations for students with disabilities.
"They have a very good program for students with special needs," Straider said. "Everybody at school has helped him."
Zach said he's enjoyed his time at Duluth High School: "Sometimes we listen to music. We also do stuff on the computer and go to the gym."
After he graduates this week from Duluth High School, Zach's next stop is Monarch School, a facility that serves students with special needs of all ages.
"I'm really excited," he said. "I like making some new friends."
The 18-year-old has already made more friends than he could have ever imagined. He saw proof last year following his rendition of the National Anthem at a South Gwinnett and Duluth football game.
Zach's vocal performance of "The Star Spangled Banner" was greeted with a standing ovation from the crowd. The moment is still crystal clear in his memory.
The recollection excites him so much that he asks dad to record him on his phone, while he breaks out in impromptu a cappella right there in the living room.
As Zach finishes singing, Straider takes a moment to brag on his boy: "Zach loves being able to perform. He loves that kind of thing. He loves the excitement. And he just loves people. His music is his gift to them."
Zach finds self-confidence in his father's words. His face lights up.
"I like singing. I should be on the radio, huh?"
'Don't let a situation get you down'
It's getting dark in urban Gwinnett County. Lights come on one by one at a small apartment building, the 40- and 60-watt glow spilling from the windows of each respective residence.
The light emanating from one particular window, however, has a different look. Casting swaying shadows against the glass pane, the illumination appears unstable: it is the flicker of candlelight.
Inside this apartment, a teenage girl named Naomi McAllister is looking over her notes, preparing for a test. Out back on the patio, her mom squints in the darkness, grilling food over glowing-red coals.
The family's electricity was shut off weeks earlier, and Scott has not yet told her daughter that they will soon be evicted. Right now, she's got food to put on their plates, and Naomi has studying to do.
Less than two years ago, it was a scenario that Naomi had come to know as reality along with the daily uncertainties: How will I get to school? How do I afford classroom supplies? Where is my home?
It's a time that mom Victoria Scott remembers as "our trials."
"We were chronically homeless from 2003 to 2011," Scott said, sitting in a room Wednesday with Naomi and her high school counselor. "When we first moved here, we stayed in a shelter. We moved from apartment to apartment after that and stayed in hotel rooms when we had the money."
As she struggled to find work, though, she encouraged her daughter to push on and continue making good grades. Her little girl had a gift for learning.
"She's always been really into academics," Scott said. "I remember when she was 2 or 3 years old, she used to love flash cards. We used them to teach her colors, shapes and the ABCs. I'm telling you, she just soaked that stuff up. She was smart."
Teachers at the elementary school she attended agreed. They decided Naomi should skip kindergarten, because she was blazing past all her classmates academically.
Now 17 years old, she graduates this week -- fifth in her class -- at Central Gwinnett High School. This summer, she's packing her bags and heading to Houston's Rice University on a full, four-year scholarship.
The young woman attributes her success to her mom's determination.
"(Mom) made it clear that she wanted me to stay in school, and she went out of her way to make sure I was able to make it to school each day, even if it seemed unfeasible at the time," Naomi said.
Her high school counselor, Tiffany Brown, has been there to lend a hand too, she said.
Brown said there's "something intrinsically resilient in (Naomi). It's proof that anybody can succeed. There's no obstacle too big."
Naomi sees it that way too. She encourages anyone confronted with seemingly insurmountable hardship to hang in there.
"Don't let a situation get you down," she said. "Even if it's an obstacle you feel you can't overcome, there are resources out there for you, and there is hope."
'Never give up'
As Naomi walks across the field at Central Gwinnett's stadium Wednesday night, and Zach crosses the stage Thursday afternoon at the Gwinnett Center Arena, it's certain their families will be there watching from bleachers or folding chairs, jumping up to cheer on their young graduates as they take their diplomas in hand.
Such is the case for thousands of other graduates of Gwinnett County Public Schools. It's a proud moment for moms and dads: those family members with an insight into the struggles their young ones face and the resulting character those obstacles have built.
It's ironic, says Scott, but poverty is one of the very things that gave her daughter a leg up in life. "When the electricity got turned off, instead of crying and complaining, we had a candlelight dinner and had a cookout on the grill," Scott said. "I'd tell Naomi, 'I know this is hard right now, but it's going to get better.' I told her 'Don't give up. Never give up.' She's the young woman she is today, because of what she's been through and what she's learned in those situations. She sees the positive."
Straider Bellier says his son's medical condition -- which for nearly two decades has confined him to a wheelchair and kept him from attending mainstream classes at school -- has not affected his love for people, which he often shares through songs on his keyboard.
Each musical note is a precious gift. Every song is an anthem: Zach's tribute to those lucky enough to know him. It's an expression of happiness in its purest form. Just look at him go: greeting an often harsh and ever-shifting world with a song in his heart and a smile on his face.