Beating the Odds

by By Chelsie Wolfe

Everybody has a story. This story is about a young man that saw addiction at an early age, but found a way to overcome obstacle after obstacle that culminated with him enrolling at Duke University, an achievement many can never reach.

Haiden Adam Bowling was born on Wednesday, October 22, 2003 in Manchester, Kentucky. 19 years, 9 months, and 22 days from the time of this writing. In terms of life and living, this span of time is but the blink of an eye. But, the story he’s written in such a short span of time is definitely worth telling.

Haiden lived with his biological parents for the first few years of his life. In fact, his father and grandparents were the focus of the documentary “American Hollow” produced by HBO and released in 1999. If you were to go on a YouTube search for this film, you’d find it, with the tagline: “This film tells the tale of a close-knit Appalachian family that has changed little in the last 100 years.” Haiden has definitely broken the mold.

After his biological parents parted ways, he relocated to Harlan County with his mother and stepfather along with his younger brother and sister. His earliest memories are of his mother, striving to achieve her Masters’ degree, while raising three children and struggling to make ends meet. This grit and determination she modeled for Haiden would go on to set the tone for his entire life.

Things fell apart for Haiden early in life. His once stable home turned into a place of abuse and neglect as the byproduct of addiction. His mother began to use drugs and alcohol to alleviate the stressors of raising three children alone. His father was very absent from his life by this point. Her addiction completely overtook her life and left her unable to care for her children. In response, Haiden became a father figure to his younger siblings to ensure that they didn’t go without…at just seven-years-old. Basic amenities like running water and power seemed like luxuries as Haiden’s mother would often not have the money to pay the bills.

In turn, those utilities would be cut off for days. His school attendance was sporadic and he fell behind academically. All of this anxiety and responsiblity compounded on the shoulders of a seven-year-old boy is unfathomable. The emotional scars he bares are real and they run deep. However, even as a young boy, he was determined to refuse to allow these choices all beyond his control to take control of his life.

“Before coming to Clay County Kentucky, every day of my life was one I wouldn’t wish upon my greatest enemy,” Bowling said. “Not knowing when I’d get my next meal, constant verbal and physical abuse, domestic violence, and living without reliable electricity and water.”

His grandmother, Belinda Wagers, of Big Creek, whom he credits for saving his life, stepped in and assumed custody of Haiden, and his brother and sister, relocating them to the place he calls home: Big Creek, KY. Being so young and having endured so much displacement and trauma already, he was devastated at first at the thoughts of having to essentially start over. Imaginably so. Little did he know, another chapter of his story was yet to be written…and this one would be altogether different than the beginning.

He enrolled at Big Creek Elementary toward the end of fifth grade. He has often remarked that the moment he arrived inside the building, he knew that he was “home”. His life drastically changed, and the scars of the past began to fade through connections to this little school and its faculty and students. Arriving here and feeling so much love and connection, he was able to bloom emotionally and academically. His test scores were significantly higher than his peers and his many gifts began to reveal themselves. All of this came to fruition because of school, friends, a loving family, and a chance he never would have had if is grandmother hadn’t intervened.

Throughout middle school and high school, Haiden continued to blossom and defy all the odds. A chance meeting with Mr. Donnie Stevens lead to Haiden discovering more of his talents through theater as a five-year Tiger Troupe member. His awards in theater span from local, regional, state, to international. His impressive list of extracurricular activities, awards, stellar GPA, and ACT score of 27 put colleges on notice…

Once a boy, struggling to find a stable home, had several colleges in competition to be his next home. Haiden received scholarship offers from nearly every University in the state and several around the country. Once Duke University called and offered a full scholarship, Haiden knew he had to answer. He knew that this next chapter would be written in Durham, North Carolina…which is a long way from Big Creek.

He credits this great honor to “one single chance” and references this to his grandmother and her intervention in his life years ago. However, without Haiden’s great ambition, optimism, and courage to take that “one single chance” and run with it, he’d have never made it to Duke. It’s a lesson to us all to not be afraid of failure and to always be ambitious and optimistic…regardless of the hand we are dealt in this life.

Haiden plans to dedicate his life to public service. He wants to fight for children that are in the situation he once found himself in as an Attorney and perhaps a Politician. He also has one more aspiration: “And probably more than anything, be the best parent I can be. I’m putting my foot down and ending the generational trauma imbedded in my veins, so my kids can grow up and be proud that I’m their dad. That’s one of the biggest motivators in my life: the future prospect of giving my own children someday a life I never had…” Haiden plans to spend his life making life better for others.
“I can’t give myself all the credit of being where I am today. Being one of the top academic students at Clay County High School, going to a nationally recognized university, and being able to sleep at night knowing I’ve tried my best. It takes a village to raise a child, and this village is one I wouldn’t trade for anything,” he said. “My grandmother saved my life as well as my brother and sister’s. We can never thank her enough for what she and Lonnie has done for us.”

Haiden also says a Clay County High teacher was a huge influence on his life by introducing him to theatre and the Tiger Troupe.

“I’d like to personally thank Donnie Stevens. Male figures in my life have seldom been ones that I can say have left a positive impact.

The ones that have I can count on my hand. But words are unable to encapsulate how thankful I am to him for giving me a place to be myself. For being someone invested in my future and wellbeing. For giving me a leader I can trust to get me where I need to be.

For giving me a role model that hasn’t let me down. Oftentimes, when people say they care for me and where I go in life, it feels like a breakable statement that fades with time, but with Donnie, I know this isn’t the case.

He’ll forever be the man who gave me the opportunity to walk across an international stage to accept an award, who started middle school theatre because I accosted him at a church, who believed in me enough to let me lead this troupe for two years, who taught me to drive, who showed me the Green Mile, to talk me out of a very bad college decision, and to be the rock in my life when things looked impossible. Thank you, Donnie, I love and respect you more than I could ever put into words,” Bowling said.

Haiden is living proof that with grit, determination, and good people in your corner…the wildest of dreams can be reality. Cycles can and will be broken. Haiden could have been a kid with no opportunity, no chance, no hope, and nothing more than a statistic. The chapters of his story thus far could have been filled with tragedy.

But they were not. In fact, they have been filled with triumph.

Haiden Bowling has, will, and will continue to shatter any statistic. Lord willing, brighter and happier chapters are still left to write. This is just the beginning.