Helton Rodriguez (CS photo by Jaclyn Lippelmann)
Helton Rodriguez (CS photo by Jaclyn Lippelmann)

When Helton Rodriguez was just 10 years old, his mother died after battling cancer. Since his father had not been in his life since he was very young, Rodriguez chose to live with his uncle, who had been helping pay for his tuition at St. Martin of Tours School in Gaithersburg.

“Sometimes I look back and wonder why I wasn’t more afraid,” said Rodriguez, remembering his mother’s illness. He said he would visit her in the hospital and paint her nails or give her silly bands, which were popular when he was a kid.

In eighth grade, Rodriguez had to stop living with his uncle and began moving around to the houses of different families in the St. Martin’s community who offered to take care of him.

Eventually, one mother named Vivian Abudayeh told her husband about Rodriguez. Abudayeh had been battling cancer at the same time as Rodriguez’s mom, but she had survived. Her husband was touched by his story because it was similar to his. He had come to the United States from Palestine when he was young and lived with other families. So before Rodriguez’s freshman year at Our Lady of Good Counsel High School in Olney, the family offered to take Rodriguez in.

Through all of the moving between houses and talking to doctors, Rodriguez thinks he became more extroverted, and teachers at the school said his positivity remains a prominent part of his personality.

“He has had a hard life, but he doesn’t sit back on his heels and say, ‘I’ve had a tough life,’ he goes out and tries to make other people’s lives better,” said Kristina Friedgen, a drama teacher at the school.

As an example of this, Friedgen recalled how this year in the school’s fall play, Rodriguez had one of the lead roles and was the understudy for the main character. When the lead actor was no longer able to perform after the first weekend of the play, Rodriguez had to learn the entire new role for the next weekend, and several other students had to shift their roles as well.

“He was really good at rallying the rest of the cast,” she said. “He never lost his positivity. He really helped to pull the team together.”

After shadowing Good Counsel, Rodriguez dreamed of attending school there, and Good Counsel provided financial aid to make that dream a reality. In addition to the school spirit he experienced while shadowing the school, Rodriguez said it was the way religion was taught that made him want to go to school there.

Instead of telling students the material, the religion teacher ran his class by asking the students questions, which Rodriguez said connected with him, because he is constantly asking questions.

“I’ve always been a very introspective person,” said Rodriguez, who noted that he asks many questions about any subject, whether it is asking about sin in religion class or how people came up with formulas in math class.

This is partially due to the hardships that he has faced in his life, which has caused him to doubt his faith, but has ultimately strengthened it, he said.

“I’ve asked questions and I’ve found answers for myself, or I know I’ll never know until I reach the gates [of Heaven],” he said.

While attending Good Counsel, he has become close friends with many of his teachers and gotten involved in many activities there, including six school plays and a service trip to El Salvador, where his family is originally from.

The last time he had been to El Salvador was for his mom’s funeral when he was 10 years old, and Rodriguez said the trip made him and other Salvadoran students “more appreciative of ancestors who migrated here” as they thought about what life would be like if they did not live in the United States.

Just as the St. Martin’s community supported him after his mother’s death, the Good Counsel community has continued to help Rodriguez when he needs it, with teachers doing things like giving him rides home when he needs it or paying for his prom ticket and suit.

Friedgen said some of the things that make Rodriguez stand out are his self-motivation and passion for whatever he does.

“He is very much a go-getter. He is very strong in his faith, and his faith has been tested a lot, too,” she said. “…He sees what he wants, and he goes for it…

He knows what the intrinsic motivation of it is, he wants to do things that are going to make him proud, make his family proud.”

After receiving offers for scholarships and financial aid from several prominent universities, Rodriguez decided to attend the University of Notre Dame in the fall. He hopes to become a doctor, and right now is leaning toward either being a cardiologist or a pediatrician.

“I didn’t think I’d get here,” said Rodriguez. “…With my mom, it is weird to think the last time I saw her I was a 9-year-old boy…if she is watching, I’ve done pretty good.”