Editor's note: Due to early deadlines related to the Memorial Day holiday, The Herald-Times will publish photos from this weekend's high school graduations on Wednesday.
When Eli Dilts was in second grade, all of his parents’ hopes for him — going to college, getting a job, growing up to be a good person — were paused.
At 7, he was diagnosed with stage 4 medulloblastoma, a highly aggressive brain tumor. The following year, he went through surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation and had to relearn to walk, talk and swallow. His mom and dad, Angela Loewe and Jeremy Dilts, threw their other worries out the window and prayed for one thing — for Eli to live through this.
Even after the five-year mark, when Eli’s cancer was officially considered in remission, his family didn’t know how normal of a life he’d be able to live.
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This weekend, Eli will walk across the stage with 384 other seniors at Bloomington High School South's graduation. The ceremony will be 9:30 a.m. Saturday in the high school gym.
“It’s a moment that we prayed so hard for, for so long,” Loewe said. “Now that we’re here, it just seems really surreal.”
A dream achieved
Eli, who lives with some side effects from the cancer but has been in remission for years, lives a pretty normal teenage life. He’s funny, smart aleck-y and craves independence. Sometimes he says he tells his family he doesn’t like Bloomington or high school, but he’s almost always kidding. Like most teenagers, he has mixed feelings about graduation.
“I’m really excited but not super excited at the same time,” he said. “I’m excited because I won’t have to hear the two security guards yelling at me to get to class.”
Eli and the school’s resource officers, along with Principal Mark Fletcher and other school staff, have a close, joking relationship. Every morning Eli liked to walk into the main office and banter with secretary Kelly DeMier and others.
“There isn’t a single adult at South, probably, who doesn’t know who he is,” Loewe said.
The group that made the biggest difference in his life, though, was the Unified track and field team, which combines students with and without disabilities.
Even as a 7-year-old, Eli was known for his athleticism. So when he got sick and could no longer play on traditional sports teams due to balance problems, he felt lost.
“I think it was a bit of a struggle for him to find his new identity that didn’t revolve around sports,” Loewe said. “His freshman year, the school created the Unified track team, and he was able to be on a sports team again for the first time. It was just an incredible game changer for him.”
Along with doing shot put and long jump, Eli made a group of loyal friends through the team. And, maybe most importantly, he got to fulfill a childhood dream.
Before he got sick, all Eli ever really wanted to have in high school was a letterman jacket. After his diagnosis, he assumed it would never happen. He’d have to let it go.
Then, during the awards banquet his freshman year, he was presented with a varsity letter. It changed the way he viewed himself.
“Right after I got out of the hospital, kids were looking down on me because I couldn’t do everything that they could,” he said. “But now that I have a varsity letter, I don’t feel like I’m looked down upon anymore.”
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Now and in the future
A few years into high school, Loewe still wasn’t sure Eli would be able to live independently as an adult. Last summer, when Eli got a part-time job at Walmart, her perspective changed.
“We didn’t really help him at all,” she said. “He went online, he applied, he went to the interview and he left with a job offer. Whatever he did … it showed he was capable of presenting himself in a way that made him seem employable and dependable.”
Eli is probably one of the most dependable employees at Walmart. He arrives 45 minutes before every shift, and he’s never missed a day of work unless he was sick.
After he graduates, he’ll continue to work at Walmart for the summer. Then, he’ll attend the culinary school at the Hoosier Hills Career Center, pursuing another childhood dream.
Before the cancer, Eli would occasionally bake desserts with his grandmother but never thought much of it. He wanted to be a police officer or in the army.
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As the years went on, though, he had to give up those dreams and started baking and cooking more. He cooked meals with his grandmother, baked Christmas cookies with his mom and attended culinary camps for several summers. It became his passion.
Eli’s parents want him to attend Hoosier Hills before going off to another school to make sure he’s okay on his own. He still can’t do some things, and he doesn’t yet have a driver’s license. Even in remission, he’s considered to be living with a traumatic brain injury.
But he’s dedicated to living a normal life. No matter what path he takes, Loewe said, she’s just happy he’s made it to this point.
Watching any child graduate from high school is emotional for parents. For someone like Eli, it’s even more special.
“This wasn’t promised,” Loewe said. “For him to get here, it’s probably my single most emotional moment as a parent. We all fought so hard to get here, and now that it’s happening … I can’t believe we’re here.”
Contact Christine Stephenson at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on The Herald-Times: Bloomington South's Eli Dilts to graduate this weekend