• PG Family portrait: The Sweigerts

    By Cameron Douglas

    Readers of this newspaper may recall a poem that appeared in our April 24 issue as part of our Young Writer’s feature. The poem, penned by PGHS student Julia Sweigert, was titled, “Ellen.” The words carried such a strong feeling that we wanted to learn more about Ellen and her family. The Sweigerts – Jan, David, Joshua, Ellen and Julia – generously agreed to an interview. Their house sits on a hill in what could be called, “Pagrovia Heights.” Here is the Sweigert family, starting with Mom.  

    Jan Sweigert is a Registered Civil Engineer and heads the local office for the State Department of Public Health drinking water program. “It’s a very small office,” says Jan. “We are the regulators for drinking water in the Santa Cruz, San Benito and Monterey County areas.” She’s been with the program since late 1999 and has headed the office since 2006. She recently took eight months family medical leave. “The state was very good about my leave, and when I was ready to return, they welcomed me back in.” Jan is an avid hiker, cyclist, reader and lover of bluegrass music.
    Her husband David works as a land use attorney with the law firm of Fenton & Keller. “I’ll have been there seventeen years in October. Before that, I was a schoolteacher, a commercial salmon fisherman, truck driver, and did a variety of other things before starting law school in 1988.” He plays guitar and mandolin: there’s a lot of music in the Sweigert house.
    Their son Joshua graduated from Pacific Grove High School in 2004 and currently is a history major attending UC Davis. He also picks guitar, mandolin and a little banjo, loves to read and loves hiking. Josh is 22 months older than the next sibling, Ellen.
    Ellen Sweigert is a character. She speaks her mind quickly and is always up for verbal dueling with other family members. One does not usually find this level of brightness in a person born with Down syndrome. Talk with her about music, dancing, acting or playwriting and she really lights up. She currently attends Monterey Peninsula College, taking classes in thinking and reasoning, auditory processing and self-advocacy. These are classes for students with learning disabilities to help transition into mainstream curriculum. “It’s going good,” Ellen reports with a smile.
    “I like it.”
    Julia Sweigert is Junior Class President at PG High, and when classes resume in the fall, she will become Student Body President. She wrote the poem for Ellen as part of an assignment from her English teacher, Larry Haggquist. And there’s another connection: Mr. Haggquist once helped produce a film based on a play written by another student – Ellen Sweigert. When asked if she likes writing, Julia shakes her head. “I’m a math person.” (And an avid soccer player.) She loves travel and is planning a trip to Italy and France this summer. Someday, Australia: maybe the world.

    Life changed for the Sweigerts in June of 2008. A year to the day after Ellen’s triumphant high school graduation – she went all the way through as a regular student – she was diagnosed with leukemia. Jan took eight months off work to help her daughter through the preliminary treatment. “With leukemia, they start with non-stop chemotherapy,” Jan explains. “It’s anywhere from two to six chemicals a week for eight weeks at a time. That would include orally at home, shots at home, plus going up to Stanford once a week. They’d take her off every eight weeks or so to make sure everything rebuilds itself, then go back and slam it again.”
    Jan sums up the experience: “With all the turmoil in these political times, it really reinforced my belief in the basic goodness of people. Things we got from perfect strangers that had heard about Ellen. I remember just being in awe of all the goodness that flowed our way.”
    Ellen is now taking low-level chemo. But that still requires one drug every day for two years. Her oncology treatment is through the Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford, though she is occasionally treated for infections at Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula. “Both hospitals do an incredible job,” says Jan. Which prompts a reaction from Ellen: “Comparing CHOMP to Stanford, I think CHOMP has better food.” And now – get this – Ellen is writing a musical about cancer! “I’m hopefully going back to acting,” she says. “I did eleven musicals in high school and middle school, and really got into that. I love doing anything on stage.”
    At her graduation from PGHS in June of 2007, Ellen Sweigert – small, confident and wearing very cool sunglasses – took the podium and addressed her classmates. She concluded her speech with these words: “Many of us have a disability in one form or another. All of us have things in our lives that can hold us back. Don’t listen to those who say you can’t do something. Put your mind and heart in whatever you do, and you will be a success.”


    Related Story: Camp Okizu

    posted to Cedar Street Times on May 7, 2009

    Topics: Cameron Douglas, Current Edition, Features

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