Education

Collinsville student rises above abuse, wants to help others do the same

Collinsville High senior reaches out to students with disabilities

Bree Ann Marciniak, a Collinsville High School student, created “Friends for Life,” a new club at Collinsville High to help students with disabilities integrate socially with other students. Bree and several other students asked students with disa
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Bree Ann Marciniak, a Collinsville High School student, created “Friends for Life,” a new club at Collinsville High to help students with disabilities integrate socially with other students. Bree and several other students asked students with disa

The Horatio Alger scholarship is for students who have overcome challenges to make something of themselves in high school, and few have done as much of that as Bree Ann Marciniak.

A few years ago, Bree wasn’t even thinking about college. Speaking candidly about her history, Bree said her childhood was a matter of survival, of simply making it through the day as she was repeatedly abused both mentally and physically.

In her own words, she was at the bottom of the educational ladder, failing every class. “It was bad. There are no words to explain how miserable it was,” she said. “I was just trying to make it through the day.”

Bree said she hit bottom with a suicide attempt. For the amount of drugs she took, “it should have killed me,” she said. She survived, but she said she knew if her life continued the way it was, she would never make it.

“So I got out of my situation and moved in with my grandma, and it changed it all around,” she said. She was placed with grandmother Joanne Cullen, 60, when she was 14.

Never give up. No matter how dark it can get or how bad a situation is, there are people more than willing to help you. They won’t know unless you say something.

Bree Ann Marciniak, Collinsville High School senior

That has made all the difference, Bree said. Now she has a 3.93 GPA on a four-point scale, taken 17 hours of college classes while excelling in high school, earned a certified nurse’s assistant certificate, and won the $25,000 Horatio Alger scholarship for her college education.

“It’s for students who have some kind of disadvantage, but made something of themselves in high school,” said adviser Karen Olsen. The scholarship will give Bree $5,000 a year toward her tuition, with $10,000 during her last year. It also includes a trip to Washington D.C., mentorship and internship opportunities and more.

“It’s a testament to who she is,” Olsen said. “She’s had a rough life, and she hasn’t let that become an excuse for her or hold her back.”

When Bree entered high school, she was in special education classes for students with behavior disorders and had to do a lot of catch-up work for the material she hadn’t learned in junior high. But she worked hard, Olsen said, took summer school classes, and eventually transitioned back into regular classes at Collinsville High School.

Applying for the Alger scholarship was “a long shot,” Bree said, and it was very difficult: a lot of personal questions, surveys, a series of essays and other paperwork. But in the end, she got the call.

“When I found out, I thought it was a joke,” Bree said. “The lady who called me was an alumni. It’s the first year they’ve called the winners, and she said she was so happy to tell me.”

In the meantime, Bree also created “Friends for Life,” a new club at Collinsville High to help students with disabilities integrate socially with other students. Bree and several other students asked students with disabilities to accompany them to the Winter Ball and will repeat it for the prom later in the spring.

“We want to make it the best possible experience they could ever have,” Bree said. “All it takes is one small action to make another person’s day. It’s better to give, and the more you give, the better you feel.”

Bree intends to attend Southern Illinois University Edwardsville to study international business, but not to work for a mega-corporation. She wants to work for nonprofit organizations and make a difference in the world.

“I can help people by advertising and marketing their efforts,” she said. “I think I’d be very successful.”

Bree spoke openly about her past, the years of therapy and the support she received from her grandmother and her counselors.

It was hard getting out of it, but it’s the best decision I ever made.

Bree Ann Marciniak, Collinsville High School senior

“It was hard getting out of it, but it’s the best decision I ever made,” she said. “My grandma says I would have been fine without her, but I wouldn’t. She’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”

She said those experiences, as awful as they were, helped form her plans for the future. “I wouldn’t change the pain I went through — it made me the person I am today,” she said. “I know what that pain feels like, and I want to make sure young girls don’t go through what I went through.”

Elizabeth Donald: 618-239-2507, @BNDedonald

Meet Bree Ann Marciniak

  • Age: 18
  • School: Collinsville High School
  • Grade: Senior
  • Town: Collinsville
  • Guardian: Joanne Cullen
  • Clubs/activities: Art Club, Friends for Life, Health Occupation Students of America
  • Favorite class: Drawing
  • Awards: The Horatio Alger Scholarship
  • Pasttimes: “I like to read, spend time with my family, and I work at Schnucks in Collinsville.”
  • Future Plans: College studies in international business. “I want to make a difference.”
  • Advice for fellow students: “Never give up. No matter how dark it can get or how bad a situation is, there are people more than willing to help you. They won’t know unless you say something.”
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