When Asianna Benalli was around 11 years old, her mom lost everything.
Her job, her car, her house — gone, within a matter of months. Because of an abusive relative, Benalli and her family had already mostly been on their own, she said. So when they lost it all, they spent the next seven years or so bouncing from home to home.
Now, the Atrisco Heritage Academy High School senior lives with her four siblings, her mother, and two other relatives in a two-bedroom apartment. Her mother and grandmother work, but the family still relies on food stamps to pay for groceries.
But Benalli doesn’t let everything she’s been through get her down. In fact, it’s fuel for the fire.
“I’ve always said, my whole life … ‘your problems (are) an excuse — so use it as motivation,’ ” Benalli said.
On Wednesday, Benalli, 18, is set to walk across the stage at Tingley Coliseum to receive her high school diploma. In the fall, she’ll become the first person in her family to go to college.
“Her senior year, she had me, and my senior I’m graduating and (going to) college,” Benalli said, referring to her mother, who gave birth to her when she was 18. “Graduation, everything … (it’s) a big step, because I’m the first generation to go to college.”
To be sure, Benalli’s ride hasn’t been easy.
Because her family’s doubled up in one home with her grandmother, she qualifies to get help from Albuquerque Public Schools’ McKinney-Vento program, which serves students experiencing homelessness or some other form of housing insecurity.
But Benalli insists that she’s never wanted for anything — or, at least, not for long. Still, it used to be difficult to see her peers, some of whom she said are “privileged,” in some ways, being able to have nice things like their own room or the best shoes.
“It was hard for me to adapt to that,” she said. “But … I use my struggles as a motivation. So it made me really dig deep, and it made me really want to work 10 times harder.”
Her mother, Kandise Joe, also said Benalli had to make big trade-offs to achieve her dreams. Most of the time, the softball player was in the gym, and didn’t have time for boyfriends or for going out.
“She wasn’t able to do regular teenage stuff,” Joe said. “We told her she’d have to sacrifice a lot to get to where she wants to be, and a lot of (things) are distractions, and ‘right now we’ve got to aim for your future.'”
Benalli rises at 4:30 a.m. every day to work out. She sacrificed her senior prom so she could go to the gym, says she doesn’t go to parties and often forgoes hanging out with friends and school events so she can focus on her priorities.
“She’s just really just driven,” McKinney-Vento outreach resource teacher Sharon Torres said. “She could be one of those that has that little chip on her shoulder … and she just doesn’t.”
On Thursday, Benalli, who’s Navajo, received a Tribal Seal and the Seal for Distinguished Learning from APS, which requires at least 30 hours of volunteer work. She’ll graduate with a 3.8 weighted GPA, and in the fall, she’s headed to Louisiana, where she got a full ride to attend Bossier Parish Community College.
Giving people hope
Because her siblings haven’t had much of a father figure, Benalli often has to fill the role herself, she said. She helps get them ready in the morning and takes them to school, trains her sister in softball and, when they need it, shows them the right path.
“My brother, he’s come to me and he’s like, ‘Why doesn’t mom have a house?'” she said. “I try to make it as positive as possible. … I like to reassure them that ‘This is a lifestyle you don’t want to live when you grow up, so I want you to use that.'”
“My whole purpose in my whole life is to just give people hope,” she added.
Joe says Benalli’s a source of motivation for her entire family, including her.
“Now, everyone has goals, everyone has dreams,” Joe said. “A lot of things, I’ve learned from her. Trusting the process, trusting God, ‘always bounce back, whether you fall or fail.'”
“She broke that cycle (of being a teenage mother),” she added. “I feel like she’s living my life that I’ve always wanted. … She deserves it all.”
Benalli hasn’t worked out all the details on her career path quite yet — she wants to study criminal justice, but isn’t sure where that will lead her.
What is for sure, though, is that she’s determined to prove to her family that they can all make it.
“We have little hope that there’s success out there,” she said. “So my purpose, and my dream, (is) to (show) my siblings and my family that there (are) successful people out there, and there (are) good things in life, if you, obviously, sacrifice and are determined and willing to get that far.”