ACE Award
Exchange Club President Victor Alejandro (middle) presents certificates of achievement to Scotts Valley High School seniors Ashton Gillin and Isabella Wilkerson, who each received the ACE Award this year for their stunning turnaround in the classroom. (Drew Penner/Press Banner)

It’s easy enough to identify top academic minds by looking toward the names next to the best marks, or the top sports performer who scores the most goals. But there’s another category of student whose accomplishments are equal to—if not greater than—those of the more traditional awardees.

Every year, the Exchange Club of Scotts Valley seeks to highlight Scotts Valley High School seniors who’ve overcome serious learning struggles or shown incredible mettle in the face of challenges in their personal life, through the ACE Award.

This honor is given to the two students who’ve mounted a stunning turnaround or conducted themselves in an impressive manner while dealing with various obstacles outside of classes.

It’s easy to understand why this year’s winners—Isabella Wilkerson and Ashton Gillin—are deserving of the recognition—as well as the $500 scholarship that comes with it.

Wilkerson, a 17-year-old who only moved to Scotts Valley about a year ago, not only had to deal with the regular Zoom-school hassles of the pandemic during her high school career, but also made a remarkable improvement in her grades after facing housing instability.

Gillin, a 19-year-old who grew up in Scotts Valley, overcame challenges related to brain cancer and surgery for the disease when he was a young child.

Exchange Club President Victor Alejandro said it’s fantastic to see how the students accepted the challenge of excellence and made big improvements.

“These changes have enabled the students to overcome adversity and prepare for graduation,” said Alejandro, adding the selection is made with the help of the guidance counselors. “The Exchange Club loves giving this award.”

Wilkerson—known to her friends as Bella—went from failing all her classes last year, to making up credits and scoring A’s and B’s in all subjects.

It’s not that, before this, she was a slacker.

“I was homeless before coming here actually,” she said.

ACE Award
Isabella Wilkerson made a remarkable improvement in her grades after facing housing instability. She is now enrolled in a human services program at Cabrillo College. (Drew Penner/Press Banner)

She’d ended up living in a shelter in Turlock with her grandmother and two siblings, in her junior year. They’d go to get a bed around 4:30pm, have a shower, eat—and then it was lights-out. She remembers how they had to leave by 6am the next morning.

There was just no room to do homework, Wilkerson explained.

Then, her grandma got sick. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

“I moved very unexpectedly,” she said.

Wilkerson began living at her aunt and uncle’s house in Scotts Valley, and now had a more stable home base for senior year.

But adjusting to a new environment wasn’t the hard part.

“I kind of bounced around from school to school all throughout my entire life,” she said. “So, it wasn’t that big of a deal.”

Plus, Wilkerson said the high school isn’t nearly as cliquey as other places she’s attended.

But in order to have a chance of graduating, instead of the four or five classes that some kids get to take, she had to take on a slate of eight.

“I didn’t think I was going to graduate,” she said.

From an English credit recovery to work experience, there was no ah-ha moment—just the daily grind of moving toward academic success.

“There’s no free time or wiggle room,” she said, recalling the Saturdays and Sundays spent with her nose to the grindstone.

But now, as she looks back, she wonders why she got the award at all.

“I didn’t do anything special,” she said.

Alejandro disagrees.

“Anyone that can ‘show up’ like these two students have done—this year especially, when it’s most important—deserves all the support they can get,” he said. “I’m very excited to see you graduate.”

Wilkerson is now enrolled in a human services program at Cabrillo College, a trajectory she said was inspired by seeing City of Santa Cruz Deputy City Manager Lisa Murphy on Career Day.

Amy Paul, the college and career advisor at SVHS, was touched to hear this.

“You put on these Career Days, and you never know that you’re making a difference,” Paul said. “The fact that you said that just gives me goosebumps.”

ACE Award
Ashton Gillin overcame challenges related to brain cancer and surgery for the disease when he was a young child. His goal is to move into the workforce after graduation. (Drew Penner/Press Banner)

While Gillin’s story doesn’t include a major home from one place to another, it does involve an airlift. When he was only a few years old—while out at a restaurant in Scotts Valley—he experienced an emergency and had to be flown to Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital.

It turned out he had brain cancer and needed surgery.

Throughout his life, Gillin would return to the hospital for radiation treatments, or to have his brain scanned. It’s a pretty noisy machine, he noted.

“I would go back there for checkups,” he said. “My cancer hasn’t come back at all.”

Because he was in the Special Education stream, he’d sometimes be in a mainstream class, and other times in a more specialized class. This made it difficult to forge the kind of close bonds others got to experience, who are around the same peers most of the time.

But, Gillin said one of the friends in his class has undergone a similar situation to what he’s been dealing with.

And Paul pointed to the proof that Gillin had made an indelible mark on the graduating class. That morning, during the senior send-off rally, as photos were being displayed, his appeared.

“When his picture came up, there was a loud applause,” she said.

“I heard that too,” Gillin said with a smile, clearly moved by the response.

He recently completed an employment placement at a sporting goods store in Capitola—where he even got to work alongside one of his friends.

“I feel great getting this award,” he said, adding he appreciates how nice everyone’s been to him over the years.

Gillin said his goal is to move into the workforce after graduation. He’s already enrolled in the Bridge program as part of making this a reality.

Paul said she’s been pleased to see the strides both students have taken.

“This is my favorite award,” she said. “It’s very inspiring.”

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Drew Penner is an award-winning Canadian journalist whose reporting has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Good Times Santa Cruz, Los Angeles Times, Scotts Valley Press Banner, San Diego Union-Tribune, KCRW and the Vancouver Sun. Please send your Los Gatos and Santa Cruz County news tips to [email protected].


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