Lexis Zeiler was 7 1/2 when she arrived in Greene County, accompanied by little more than a Spanish vocabulary, her birth name and her adoptive parents.
Recognized legally as Lodia Noemi Ovando, she had come from a grim background that included placement in a Guatemalan orphanage at age 3, following neglect from her biological mother. The orphanage was reputed to be among the better ones in that Central American nation, but it offered little in familial love.
In June 2005, a Franklin Township couple who had previously adopted a Guatemalan baby girl, decided to do it again. They initiated the process and received photos of Lodia, yet Paula and Mark Zeiler would not meet her for another 16 months. The couple returned to Latin America in the fall of 2006, spent about 10 days with the girl, were won over, but, agonizingly, came home without her.
Finally, in May 2009 – four years after committing to the adoption – it went through. Finally, thousands of miles to the north, the child began to transition into becoming Lexis Noemi Zeiler, into becoming an American, and into becoming fluent in English.
A few months after arriving on the outskirts of Waynesburg, an uncertain Lexis met a pivotal figure in her development. She was preparing for public school in a new nation when her mom introduced her to Debbie Hampson, an English as a second language instructor.
“I was behind when I came here, and it was embarrassing more than anything,” Lexis recalled. “I didn’t like being in class. It was scary.
“Mrs. Hampson went above and beyond to make me feel loved and cared for as a student. She gave me the ability to be self-motivated, and I feel very comfortable with English now.”
Comfortable, indeed. Lexis turned 16 Monday, and it is a sweet 16 for a girl who lights up Greene County with her smile. She is an A/B student with Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School who speaks eloquently, and speaks only praises of the teacher she nominated to be – and who was selected as – the Observer-Reporter’s Extraordinary People person for November.
Hampson, who previously taught for six years in the Central Greene School District, is no longer an ESL instructor, but she can include Lexis among her crowning achievements as an educator. She was reluctant to accept the O-R award, saying Paula and Mark Zeiler are more worthy, and that Lexis probably is the most deserving. Lexis’ parents, however, fully endorsed their daughter’s recommendation.
Paula Zeiler recalled the angst she and her spouse shared over their newly adopted daughter’s entry into American academics, and how Hampson, over a two-year period, largely allayed those concerns.
“Lexis had been through so much,” said Paula, who has two other daughters – Courtney, 27, and Hayle, 15, whom the couple adopted at 7 months.
“We thought we were throwing Lexis to the wolves (in public school). We didn’t know how the kids would react to her. We had a meeting with Mrs. Hampson and Lexis’ homeroom teacher, and it was then that we knew they’d take care of her.”
Hampson taught Lexis when she was a second- and third-grader in Central Greene, and discovered early on she was a receptive pupil.
“Lexis was a sponge,” Hampson said. “By the end of second grade, she was fluent and reading at grade level. That is a huge accomplishment.
“Lexis was so eager and determined, almost to the point of stubbornness.”
“She’s like that still,” Paula interjected during a recent group interview at Hampson’s home in Franklin. “Don’t tell her, ‘You can’t.’”
Flashing back eight years, Hampson said Lexis likewise adapted well socially to an unfamiliar environment. “She’s been like this since day one. Her communications skills, kindness and ability to see good in other people are genuine.”
Lexis, who switched to the cyberschool after third grade, and her ESL teacher remain close. In fact, a year ago, Paula asked her daughter what she wanted for her 15th birthday. It was, “Have lunch with Mrs. Hampson.”
The teen’s metamorphosis did not start well, though. Paula broke down a few times while recounting the couple’s initial interactions with Lexis when she was 5. They wanted to return from Guatemala in 2006 with this charming third child, but were denied.
“At that time, Lexis learned to say, ‘I love you,’” Paula said. “I remember her being in Mark’s lap and saying that.”
The adoption was official before the Zeilers went back to Central America 2 1/2 years later, a much happier couple. Yet, there was this lingering cloud.
“We went to pick her up and didn’t know whether Lexis would remember us after all that time,” Paula said. “When she saw Mark, she ran, shouted, ‘Papa!’ and jumped into his arms.”
Now an academic achiever and a cross-country runner at Waynesburg Central High School, Lexis is in the midst of her junior year. She is pondering college, leaning toward Pennsylvania State University, uncertain of a major, let alone a career. And she smiles often, as do those close to her.
“She touched my life and continues to, and not just as a student,” Hampson said. “It’s inspirational and humbling.
“Now she’s here and thriving. Lexis will make major contributions to society. I know she made my job easy and fun.”
It also was a job very well done.
- Editor’s note: As part of the Extraordinary People award, Debbie Hampson will be given $500, underwritten by the Observer-Reporter and Range Resources, to donate to the charity of her choice. She has chosen Battle 4 Warriorz, a Greene County veterans organization.