When Lillian Middour was a sophomore at Washougal High School, she was hopelessly behind in her studies and pretty sure she wasn’t going to graduate on time. She had no desire to attend class — or do much of anything else, for that matter.
She wasn’t happy with herself or anything around her. She had no confidence or self-esteem. She was tormented by a litany of emotions that festered as a result of the impact of her parents’ longtime substance abuse. Every once in a while, she even thought that maybe — just maybe — the world would be better off without her.
“It felt like the world was caving in around me,” she said. “It was a dark time.”
But since then Middour has undergone a complete transformation. She’s happy and healthy, has established a multitude of positive relationships and is set to graduate with a plan to pursue a career that she’s passionate about.
She has, in the words of Michele Gregson, her aunt and former foster mother, “a beautiful passion for life.” Those words would’ve been completely unfathomable for Middour to comprehend two years ago.
“She is doing exactly what we knew she could do and what she was told she couldn’t do,” Gregson said. “She’s flourishing, and she’s going to do incredible things. She learned to believe in herself and find her worth outside of a situation she couldn’t control.”
“I’m very proud of Lilli. She is such an awesome kid,” Washougal High’s associate principal, Mark Castle, said. “One of the things I admire most about her is her positive attitude. Even on her most challenging days, she is able to crack a smile and focus on something that needs to get done. A lot of students look for shortcuts, but Lilli really sits down and tries her best on everything that she does.”
‘Forced to grow up too fast’
Middour moved from Vancouver to Iowa with her parents and siblings, Aaron, Jackson and Kenzie, when she was 5 years old.
In the Midwest, Middour’s parents, who had struggled for years with drug and alcohol addictions, got clean, found stability and served as loving role models for their four children, Mddour said. But everything fell apart after they moved back to Vancouver seven years later.
“In Iowa, they were fantastic parents,” Middour said. “But when we moved back to Washington, everything fell back into place, and we were right back to where we started. They met back up with their old friends and started doing the same stuff.”
In retrospect, Middour’s time in Iowa was “her biggest tragedy,” according to Gregson.
“It was heartbreaking, and affected her mental abilities,” Gregson said. “There was a point in her life when her mom and dad were clean and sober, life was amazing, and it all got ripped away. All of the anger and resentment she was feeling was there because she was old enough to remember what life was like in both situations. She was wondering, ‘How does someone who is supposed to love me go back to such a horrible life?’ I truly believe that was devastating for her, as a young teenager, to watch all of that unfold again.”
During that time, Middour was “forced to grow up too fast,” according to Gregson.
“My first freshman year, we were living in Vancouver, and stuff started to go downhill,” Middour said. “My parents started to drink heavily, and they were dabbling in other things. It’s terrible to have to parent people who are supposed to be taking care of you. I was constantly having to babysit my siblings, and it got to the point where I couldn’t go to school anymore. I basically missed my entire freshman year of high school. Eventually, we ended up losing the apartment we were living in.”
The family moved to Washougal to live with Gregson, who was previously married to Middour’s father’s brother, and her husband, Mike, in November 2015. Middour’s parents continued to make poor choices and left the Gregson residence in May 2016. At that point, Lillian and Aaron left as well.
“I said ‘sayonara’ to my parents,” she said. “I was like, ‘This is awful. I can’t do this anymore.’ They said, ‘Do what you want,’ and Aaron and I walked away. We moved across town into Aaron’s girlfriend’s house, which wasn’t super awesome. There were a lot of people in that house. It was ridiculous. People were not getting everything that they needed.”
This was a time of emotional upheaval for Middour.
“My freshman and sophomore years were so hard,” she said. “My attendance was very bad. I was in and out (of school) all the time. Honestly it felt like there were more days that I didn’t go than when I did go. And sometimes, even when I was in class, I would have an anxiety attack, and I just couldn’t stand the thought of sitting in a classroom, and I’d leave. I lost motivation or the desire to be at school at all.”
“I was on a crazy emotional rollercoaster with everything that was going on with my parents,” she continued. “They were constantly trying to talk to me and mend things, but they were still completely out of their minds. It was heartbreaking to see them like that. That did something different to me. I was juggling all of these different emotions of abandonment and anger and fear and sadness and anxiety.”
At the behest of several friends, teachers and counselors, Middour met with Tera Yano, a mental health counselor for Vancouver’s Sea-Mar Community Health Center.
Through many one-one-one and group sessions, Yano eventually helped Middour to find peace. But things got worse before they got better.
“Rock bottom was probably sophomore year,” Middour said. “That was when I was at my lowest, and the most sad. One day (Yano) noticed that I was very unhappy. It was written all over my face and I couldn’t hide it. I shared with her that I felt like I didn’t belong on earth, that everything would be better if I wasn’t here anymore, and that things would be OK if I disappeared. That was probably the worst of it. She called (Aaron’s girlfriend) and told her that I should go to a hospital. That was the closest I got to doing something drastic.”
Overcoming adversity through hard work
After that incident, Middour started to get the help that she needed to feel good about herself.
“I had lots of counseling and therapy,” she said. “It was very difficult. I put in a lot of hard work. There were a lot of tears and a lot of heartache. I started taking medication, and little by little I started to feel better.”
Middour said that Yano taught her how to love and take care of herself, and gave the counselor “credit for making (her who she is) today.”
“It was a hard road to learn how to love myself,” she said. “I started from the very bottom. There were days when I woke up and didn’t want to get out of bed. I’d look in the mirror and see a blob of disgusting skin. I had to stop that and tell myself that I’m beautiful inside and out, radiating, glowing, amazing and talented. I did that every day. Literally every day I would look at myself in the mirror and say that I’m beautiful, smart, and that I have potential to make something of myself in this world.
“(Yano) let me know that it’s OK to cry, to express feelings of anger, sadness or happiness, and that I’m allowed to feel emotions,” Middour continued. “She gave me different methods of coping with anxiety and taught me how to bring myself out of an (anxiety) attack. Tera is amazing. She helped me so much.”
When Middour started feeling better, however, she realized that she still had a big problem — she was seriously behind in school.
At that point, “something clicked in my brain,” she said. “I told myself, ‘Wow, my high-school career is slipping away. I’m halfway done, and I have, like, six or eight credits. I need to get in gear.’ I don’t want to end up like my parents. I don’t want to be on the side of a road in a box. I want to be able to provide for myself and live happily, be financially stable, have my own house, have my own car. I want to do my own thing and be a successful adult.”
Middour worked with Washougal High counselor Michele Mederos, then-Washougal High principal Aaron Hansen and Castle to build a credit-recovery plan through the school’s Excelsior program.
“She wanted to graduate,” Castle said, “but I don’t think she really knew how to do it. I know that sounds odd, but if you have bounced around a lot, going to school consistently just doesn’t seem normal.”
But Middour didn’t give up. Instead, she said, she “worked (her) butt off.”
“I hardly ever left the house, honestly,” she said. “I stayed in and did schoolwork all the time, day and night. I had no social life. I did my regular classes. I did online classes. I did credit recovery. I finished (credit recovery) during the first semester, and it was smooth sailing the second semester.”
Middour moved back in with the Gregsons in January 2018 after entering the Washington State Department of Youth, Children and Families’ foster care system. Her younger siblings were still living with the Gregsons, who by that point had become certified foster parents.
“When she came to us, she was struggling with a lot of things,” Michele Gregson said. “At first she had reservations about moving in with us because she didn’t want her siblings to fall back on old habits of looking at her as a parental figure, so we worked real hard with them to make that transition.
“Mike and I have seven kids, three of whom were in school at the time, so we were in the groove of keeping kids on task at school, and we got Lillian to kick into gear,” she continued. “She was far behind in school, but dug in that first year, passed all her classes and made up a bunch of credits. She (expressed a desire) to graduate and go on to college, which was awesome to see because she very well could have succumbed to the lifestyle that she had been in.”
Middour, who said that her aunt and uncle are “amazing, super-generous, awesome people,” lived with them until August 2019, when she showed a desire to “leave the nest” after turning 18. She moved in with her boyfriend, Washougal resident Chase Anderson, and his family.
“(The Anderson) family has been absolutely amazing,” Middour said. “They’re so awesome. They’ve been super generous and help me with literally anything. They’re so caring and so sweet. I tell them as much as I can that I appreciate what they’re doing for me because they didn’t have to let me come here.”
“Her time here has been very positive,” said Bonnie Anderson, Chase’s mother. “She’s brought so much joy and happiness into our home, and I wasn’t expecting that. I’m amazed at her drive for life and ability to find joy in every situation. It’s been so fun to see her love of life and excitement for everything. I love her like she was my own daughter. I tease my son all the time, ‘I’m kicking you out before I kick her out.’”
Bonnie and Joe Anderson, Chase’s father, were happy to take Middour in, but had one rule: she had to stay in school in order to live with them.
“Both of my kids struggled in school, and I saw the obstacles they went through,” Bonnie Anderson said. “I told Lillian, “You’re on track, and you’re not letting it slip through your fingers now.’ When she moved in, she talked about getting a job to pay rent, and I said, ‘No, you have one job this year — graduate. Focus on school and enjoy your senior year. If you do that, that’s all payment I want.’”
Middour resisted at times, especially at the start of the school year. But in the end, she “pulled it together and rocked it,” according to Bonnie Anderson.
“Once I turned 18, I knew I needed to buckle down,” Middour said. “I was like, ‘It’s my senior year, I need to graduate, I need to get a good job to provide for myself, I want to go to college, I want to make something of myself, and I have to get serious about it.’ When I found out that I was going to graduate, I cried actual tears. I was so stoked. It was like, ‘I did it. I really did it.” Neither of my parents graduated from high school, and my brother didn’t graduate, so I’m the first of my immediate family to graduate. That makes me feel even better.”
Hopeful for the future
Middour displayed a talent for art at a young age.
“I love drawing, painting, colored pencils, acrylic pours, oils — all sorts of different mediums,” she said. “Art is really very therapeutic to me. I love to create things because (the process) gives you a sense of control. It’s an anxiety coping mechanism. I feel anxious sometimes, and when I get that feeling in my gut, I sit down and focus on something that I have control over, like a drawing. Sometimes (the final product is) good and sometimes it’s not, but that’s not what art is about. It’s about making something you want to make.”
Middour also enjoys a variety of outdoor activities, such as hiking and gardening.
“(She) and my daughter, Brittney, made a raised bed garden,” Michell Gregson said. “That was their ‘zen’ time in the evening — talking to the plants, watering and nurturing them.”
And Middour loves animals.
“As long as I can remember, I’ve always been around dogs and cats, horses, donkeys, goats and farm animals,” she said. “I’ve always adored them and have been intrigued by them. I don’t know if they think, but I want to know what’s going on in their heads. All animals are beautiful to me. I’ve always had a way with them. I like them and they like me.”
From the moment she came into the Gregsons’ house, she bonded with Sampson, their chocolate lab.
“He was her therapy dog,” Michelle Gregson said. “Animals have innate ability to tell when hurting, and Sampson rarely left her side. He was my husband’s dog, he bonded with Lillian. That was when I first noticed her strong connection to animals.”
At the Andersons’ house, she enjoys the company of four cats, two dogs, four chickens and a leather-backed bearded dragon named Lucy.
After graduating from Washougal this month, she plans to work for a year to save money, then enroll in Clark College and pursue a career as a veterinary technician.
“She learned from the hard times in her life and really realized that she wanted something different,” Bonnie Anderson said. “She set high expectations for herself. Failing not an option for her. She is going to go great places in life. She has goals and things that she wants to accomplish, and I have no doubt she can do those things.”
“I’m excited to hear where life takes her,” Castle said, “because now that she has a plan, her positive attitude, bright mind and big heart will give her some great opportunities.”
Middour would also like to rekindle her relationship with her mother, who is showing positive signs of recovery and recently retook custody of her two youngest children. Middour said that her father is “MIA (missing in action),” and that she hasn’t seen him in several years.
“My mom has been doing very well,” Middour said. “She’s doing (drug) tests every day, she has a job, a car, an apartment. She’s been doing very good for herself. I’ve been keeping in touch with her. She didn’t want to push me or make me uncomfortable because she knows how upset I was after everything went down. But she and I are on good terms. I love her so much; I’m a mama’s girl. I would love to mend that (relationship), and I know she feels the same way.”
Throughout all of the ups and downs, Middour has learned the value of hard work, goal-setting and maintaining a positive attitude. She knows that if she wants something, she’ll have to earn it herself, and take no shortcuts. She already accomplished something that she once thought was unachievable — graduating from high school. That accomplishment has given her the confidence to set more goals.
“Two years ago, I was convinced I was not going to graduate,” she said. “I was convinced that I wasn’t going to make anything of myself. I was convinced that I would not live past the age of 17. Now here I am — still alive, mentally stable, happy, set to graduate and loving life. I have a beautiful life.”