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Once-homeless Wichita South student graduates, now on his way to college

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, May 11, 2013, at 8:39 p.m.
  • Updated Sunday, May 12, 2013, at 2:24 p.m.

John Castellaw adjusted his cap and gown Saturday evening at Charles Koch Arena. Within a few hours, he’d be a high school graduate.

Like most of the other 3,100 Wichita public school seniors earning their diplomas this May, he studied hard, played sports, participated in class activities.

Unlike most others, though, John led a transient childhood – a childhood that, at times, included homelessness.

“There were times we would have to sleep in a car. Or sneak onto campgrounds,” said 19-year-old John, Wichita South High School’s student body president.

Once in California or Nevada – John couldn’t recall which – an adult stole a bundle of campfire wood, which was to be used to help keep him warm, while he dozed in a car.

Often he would sleep in strangers’ homes.

Then when John was 6, his biological mother left him and his two younger siblings, Tony and Hannah Matsui, at a Las Vegas children’s home.

Within a few months, his grandmother Robin Pini took the trio in.

“I call home wherever my family is,” John said as he told of relocating to Ohio, then New Mexico and finally to Wichita after Pini lost her Las Vegas home.

Sometimes they lived with an uncle or other extended family.

His grandmother’s other two children – Chelsea and Chris Pini, now 22 and 21 – often worked to help support the household.

“We’ve really never had a place to call home.”

Although John said his family never lived on the streets, at times he has been classified as homeless by the federal government. This year, about 4 percent of Wichita schoolchildren – at least 2,251 students – meet the federal definition of homeless, which includes those whose families live with other families, The Eagle reported earlier this month.

But at South, John excelled. He joined the cross-country and swim teams and participated in track and field. He was elected class president for three years and is this year’s student body president. He works with the district’s leadership advisory council and is a member of business organizations, among them Business Professionals of America.

“You never saw the stress or the struggle,” said South High’s principal, Cara Ledy. “John is a kid that if you didn’t ask questions or try to find out from him, it’s not going to show.”

She added: “He’s just amazing and exciting to watch.”

This fall, John will move again. He’s scheduled to start classes at the University of Kansas (he won a $20,000 Hixson Opportunity Award, given to those with hardships), where he plans to major in medicine.

Eventually he wants to become a doctor and open his own clinic.

“There’s been times when we weren’t able to go to the doctor’s or we had to fill out applications for it to get it paid for,” John said, explaining his chosen career path. “I’ve always been interested in helping people.

“Even though they are still struggling, they are fighting. I want to be that person to help them along the way.”

Reach Amy Renee Leiker at 316-268-6644 or aleiker@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @amyreneeleiker.

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