Rocky Bayou Senior Tells of Faith & Perseverance
Sam Grubenhoff – The cursor on Lydia Turner’s word processer blinked in and out of existence, the only mark on a blank page.
A senior at the Rocky Bayou Christian School in Niceville, Turner had always struggled to write essays. Unless they were academic, unless they answered some impersonal question, she struggled to find answers. It’s one of the few skills she has yet to master during an overwhelmingly successful high school career.
She plays volleyball, basketball and softball, she maintains straight As, she is active in her community and her church, but she struggled to answer one of the most personal questions ever posed to her: “Tell us about a life experience where you have had difficulty and have had to persevere and not give up.”
In November, Josh Childers, Rocky Bayou’s athletic director sat down with the school’s guidance counselor to determine which Knights would be nominated for certain college scholarships.
Turner, Childers said, was the clear choice for the Taylor Haugen Trophy. She had done so much for the Knights’ athletic programs and was a stabilizing force in student government meetings with the refinement and organization of someone 25 years her senior.
“She has a mind that works with grace and humility,” Childers said. “And then I just think her spiritual walk has been tremendous and her desire to glorify God in all that she’s doing — I think the world of her.”
The trophy and its accompanying scholarship are awarded annually to a senior athlete from any of the high schools in Santa Rosa, Okaloosa or Walton counties to honor the memory of Taylor Haugen, a Niceville High School student who died in August 2008 after suffering a fatal liver injury during a football game, and celebrate the lives of like-minded students.
The Taylor Haugen Foundation chooses a candidate based on his or her ability to balance academics, athleticism, leadership, community service and faith. The student must also demonstrate the perseverance to improve in all aspects of life and embody Taylor’s motto: “Don’t quit. Never give up.”
“I think Lydia, she’s one of those young ladies that’s mature beyond most of her contemporaries, which I why I think she’s getting the award,” Childers said. “Pretty much everybody that’s ever gotten that, they tend to be the same caliber.”
The application for the award, however, includes a 300-500-word essay.
Turner did her research, reading through old essays posted to the foundation’s website. The story of Maddie Hiers, a graduate of South Walton High School and last year’s Haugen recipient, caught her eye. Hiers fought alongside her parents as both battled cancer.
“When I was applying, I was like, ‘How in the world can I live up to someone who’s been through something like that?’” Turner said.
Turner had been tested, though. She just didn’t know if she was ready to share her story.
The panic attacks began at the end of Turner’s sophomore year.
It surprised her. It surprised her family. It scared her parents, Bill and Melissa.
“We didn’t know what we were dealing with,” Melissa said.
Turner said she had never been prone to anxiety before, yet suddenly she was overwhelmed to the point she couldn’t breathe. When each attack came, Melissa, who works at the Rocky Bayou elementary school, would come running, trying to help in whatever way she could.
This past spring, the attacks came to a head. Turner was at basketball practice when she had her fifth attack in three days, worse than any one that came before. Again she couldn’t breathe. Her joints locked up, frozen stiff with fear.
Melissa made the call. They would go to the emergency room.
“I was scared to death,” Melissa said. “I just ran and got in my car. We put her in there. By the time we got to the emergency room, her body was almost crippled. She couldn’t move. I had to get a wheelchair to get her out of the car. When we got her in the back, her breathing was so erratic they had to put her on oxygen.”
Turner passed out at the hospital. Melissa was removed from the room so the doctors could work. When Turner came to, she had been officially diagnosed with an anxiety attack.
“That point for me was the point I would say was kind of the turning point because I’m letting this anxiety take me out of the game,” she said. “I don’t just mean the sports game; I mean literally my life.”
Turner and her family spent the next several months trying to pinpoint what might have triggered the attacks. The process was mostly guesswork, Melissa said, taking shots in the dark.
Turner turned to her faith, reading her bible and often writing in a journal each passing thought.
“What I found through my process is that anxiety is not something that I can just like say ‘I gotta stop,’ and then I’ll stop,” Turner said. “That’s honestly what’s trying to feed the panic. It’s something that takes focus, and the only thing in my life that makes me focus is really reading the word of God.”
One psalm in particular gives her comfort when she feels chaos creeping into the back of her mind: “It is the Lord who gives strength; he is my joy and my salvation.”
She repeats the verse often.
“We have not had an anxiety attack in months,” Melissa said. “I wouldn’t say it’s a whole year but close.”
The Rocky Bayou gymnasium was packed Friday morning.
Hundreds of students filled in its blue bleachers, buzzing about the unannounced assembly. A pair of TV cameras stood in the corner, adjacent to a half dozen members of the All Sports Association and a hefty bronze statue, depicting an eagle preparing to take flight.
Lydia Turner had no idea what was going on.
Then a friend pointed to statue. Turner’s stomach filled with butterflies. She had won. Her body shook and she beamed from ear to ear as she made her way to the front of the gym to stand with her parents, who filed in shortly before the ceremony began.
She will be presented with the Taylor Haugen Trophy and the scholarship at the Buck Smith FCA Prayer Breakfast on Feb. 15 at The Arena in Niceville.
“It just meant so much to me to be a part of this foundation who honors people who have been through so much, especially the Haugens who have been through more than any of us can probably deal with it,” Turner said.
In the end, Turner’s basketball coach helped convince her to write an essay about her battle with anxiety. The story a struck a chord with each of the panelists who voted to select her unanimously.
Brian and Kathy Haugen, Taylor’s parents and the foundation’s co-founders, agreed whole-heartedly with the panel’s consensus.
“I think that in today’s environment, more and more children are suffering from anxiety and depression,” Brian Haugen said “Lydia’s story is so uplifting and gives hope for other kids to be able to find peace and hope. That’s the message that not only she owned, but she lives it and she demonstrates that.
“I think that our trophy winners and voters, the reason they were unanimous was because they found that message to be uplifting, inspiring and really necessary in today’s environment.”