By Amy Orr | LB Indy
School Resource Officer Cpl. Cornelius Ashton admitted to being nervous on his first day at Laguna Beach High School.
“I had butterflies and the anticipation of, ‘Are people going to like me? How will I be accepted on campus?’” Ashton said. “I knew that, in my position, the first thing that came before any of my roles was to form relationships with our community.”
Ashton, an 18-year veteran of law enforcement, spent 15 years working with the San Diego Community School District before joining the Laguna Beach Police Department. He became a presence on LBUSD campuses last September.
According to Ashton, his desire for connection was immediately recognized by LBHS sophomore Sara Soylular. As Ashton looked around during lunch, he saw Sara smiling at the end of the quad. Ashton said he decided to walk up and introduce himself because she was radiating a vibrant energy.
“She made me feel like I belonged,” he said. In the days that followed, Ashton watched other people gravitate toward the youngster’s positivity. Given Sara’s happy demeanor, Ashton said he was surprised to discover that she was struggling with a serious health condition.
Carolyn Soylular, Sara’s mom, said Sara was diagnosed with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS) four years ago. CRPS is a rare nerve disease that usually affects an arm or a leg. Sara’s condition hindered her ability to walk while she was a student at Thurston Middle School. During her seventh-grade year, she missed school from September to December while undergoing a three-month pain program at Stanford. Two years ago, dorsal root ganglion neurostimulator therapy helped Sara regain the ability to walk without assistance.
“Sara has seven specialty doctors at CHOC and they have really helped her come a long way,” Carolyn said with appreciation. “She has spent a lot of time in physical therapy, but she just celebrated her two-year anniversary of walking. We are just thrilled with how much she has improved.”
After learning about Sara’s struggles, Ashton wanted to find a way to honor her upbeat attitude and use it to inspire others. He gained approval from campus administrators and set out to make a “Student Spotlight” video about the smiling sophomore.
The footage, filmed by LBHS senior Caden Bencz, showed many aspects of Sara’s sunny personality. An interview with Cassandra Brooker, Sara’s science teacher, highlighted her tenacity.
“She came in with a smile and she has continued with that smile and that enthusiasm and that work ethic,” Brooker said. “When she has every reason to stay at home and to frown and be sad, she overcomes it.”
Another clip showed Sara playing piano and singing Chicago’s “Inspiration” with her mom and Cpl. Ashton. Ashton described it as the perfect song, since Sara is an inspiration to the LBHS campus.
“Sara used to be a great athlete, but her condition keeps her from playing sports now,” Carolyn said. “Luckily, she has found other activities to pursue. She has played piano for a few years and she recently discovered a love for singing. Out of all bad, comes good.”
Sara spoke enthusiastically about her relationship with Cpl. Ashton, describing him as a really respectable person and an amazing role model. She also raved about her wonderful teachers and her friends at LBHS.
“Our family mantra is to choose joy in every situation, no matter how hard it is” Sara explained, “because there’s always joy to find in the outcome.”