South High student overcomes homelessness to succeed

WICHITA, Kansas – Many students struggle to graduate high school. They would benefit from learning from John Castellaw.

“Just because you were dealt a hand doesn’t mean you have to play it like it is,” Castellaw said Saturday, as he was preparing to graduate from Wichita’s South High School. “You have to learn how to use everything around you.”

No one knows that lesson better than him, preparing to get something many in his shoes have not: a high school diploma.

“Being put in situations that a normal kid or teenager wouldn’t be in, it’s just fascinating to me knowing that I did it,” Castellaw said.

Growing up, John’s mother had a substance abuse problem, and as a result, John and his two younger siblings, Tony and Hannah, were often homeless.

“[We were] staying in strangers’ homes I wouldn’t know, having to watch over my brother and sister, at times sleeping in a car, being homeless, it’s been pretty difficult,” Castellaw said.

“He went through things a child should never go through and a mother couldn’t ask for a better child,” Robin Pini, John’s grandmother, said.

Several times, the state of Nevada took custody of John and his siblings, including for good when John was 6, after his mother left the three kids at a Las Vegas children’s home. They were placed in foster homes until the state located Pini, who took them in as her own.

Pini, who the kids call Mom now, recalled times that John would make Tony and Hannah sugar sandwiches so that they would have something to eat.

“When I got them, [John] was like a little adult trying to take care of them,” Pini said. “I used to tell him ‘I’m the mom, I’m going to do this, you have fun.’”

But even then, there were challenges.

“Our grandfather, he obtained a gambling addiction and lost our home in Las Vegas, so we moved from there to Ohio to New Mexico to here, so it’s been a really long journey,” Castellaw said.

The journey brought them to Wichita in 2006, and since then, having a stable place to call home helped Castellaw succeed.

“I always tell the children, ‘If you’re going to do something, you do it good,’” Pini said. “When you run you better go as fast as you can and if you think that foot can’t take you another step, you do that other step.”

That’s what John did. He graduates as South High’s student body president and a multi-sport athlete. He also earned a scholarship to attend the University of Kansas in the fall. All remarkable feats one would not expect of him given where he’s been.

“I’m a person who doesn’t give up,” he said. “If you say you’re going to do something and you do the steps that need to be done to get there, you’ll make it.”

Castellaw plans on choosing a major in the medical field at KU with the ultimate goal of being a doctor. He says he would either like to start a non-profit organization or open a clinic, and wants to give back to the community that gave him a shot to succeed.

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