Kia Lor, a graduate of Johnson High School in St. Paul, was forced to grow up more quickly than most children. Born in a Thailand refugee camp, her mother fled with four-year-old Kia and her siblings to find a better life in Minnesota. Her abusive father refused to join them, so the family arrived in the new country without money, or English skills, and hampered by limited opportunity and knowledge of the culture.
Since arriving, her family always struggled financially. “During Christmas, Santa came to every house but mine;” she said. “When my tooth came loose, the Tooth Fairy never came. My birthday was just like every other day.”
Beyond the financial turmoil, her mother remarried three more times – against her children’s wishes – to men who abused her. But the most wrenching experiences happened when Kia was in elementary school and her mother twice tried to escape her problems by attempting suicide. “She was the only person who truly cared about me,” Kia said. “I couldn’t understand how she could want to leave me forever.”
In order to cope, Kia has kept a diary, written poetry about her experiences, and stayed busy with school activities. She also learned to “organize the family,” and drove her younger siblings to and from their activities and served as interpreter at parent-teacher conferences for her mother, who speaks only Hmong.
Despite having to study English as a Second Language until 7th grade, Kia graduated near the top of her class with a 3.6 GPA. She was active in National Honor Society, an editor of the school yearbook, helped the homeless as a member of “Fresh Force,” and played on the school badminton team.
She dedicated much of her time to leadership roles and helping others. She tutored younger students in math, raised money to travel to Guatemala with Habitat for Humanity, and served as an editor for Hmoob (Hmong) Teen Magazine. She also participated in Girl Scouts, the Service Leaders of Tomorrow program, and the Youth Leadership Initiative at the Wilder Foundation.
"Although I’ve had to mature faster than most kids, I’ve learned to be independent and stand on my own two feet,” she said. “There’s so much to do in life. You shouldn’t just give up.”
Kia attends the College of St. Benedict and plans to use technology to express her creativity by majoring in Graphic Design or a similar subject.