McKay HS student graduates, fulfills promise to parents who died: 'I'm doing this for them'

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SALEM, OR (KPTV) - A McKay High senior earned his diploma Wednesday, despite tragically losing both his parents and starting the year with only half the credits needed to graduate.

KJ Kovac was honored by the Salem-Keizer Public Schools with the Turnaround Achievement Award.

KJ missed most of his sophomore year of school after his mom died of a heart attack. About a year later, his dad died the same way.

“I’m doing this for them,” KJ said before commencement. “I’m trying to make them proud.”

KJ, the youngest of eight siblings, immigrated with his family to the United States from Chuuk, Micronesia.

The family first settled in Hawaii when KJ was in fifth grade. By the time he entered high school, KJ wasn’t motivated to do well.

“I was slacking, and my grades were all poor,” KJ said.

The family ended relocating to Salem for a fresh start.

“I was thinking about starting to work hard and really do what my mother said -- to graduate high school and have a better future,” KJ said.

When his mom died, KJ moved back to Hawaii for a year to be with family. He had just returned to Salem when he lost his dad.

“It was really hard to focus in school when you lost both parents,” KJ said.

A new grief counseling program at the high school helped KJ move forward, according to school staff.

One of the people who helped KJ catch up with his schooling was his counselor, Virginia Antunez.

Antunez said she knew KJ was driven immediately.

“He said, ‘I don’t care what I need to do, I’m going to graduate for my parents,’” Antunez recalled.

KJ buckled down to double his coursework, took online classes and often started his homework as late as 10 p.m., once he was done babysitting his nephews.

One of the district’s community resource specialists, Ken Ramirez, dedicated time to mentoring KJ.

At graduation, Ramirez placed a Kukui Nut lei around KJ’s neck.

“A lot of other kids in the community can look at him and say, ‘look what he did’ and where he was at, and with hard work, it can all still happen,” Ramirez said.

KJ is attending Chemeketa Community College in the fall. He’s interested in maybe pursuing a career in firefighting.

Antunez started a GoFundMe account to help pay for KJ’s college expenses. She hopes to raise $5,000.

Anyone interested in donating can do so at this link:

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