Assisting sports teams gave Vestaburg senior sense of belonging

By Curtis Wildfong • Last Updated 11:49 am on Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Vestaburg High School senior Phillip Day poses in front of the entrance to Vestaburg High School. Day is cognitively impaired, but after a long journey he will be earning his high school diploma this coming Sunday. — Daily News/Kyle Wilson

VESTABURG — At just 5 pounds, 7 ounces, Phillip Day may have entered the world as a tiny baby boy, but the Vestaburg senior’s personality is anything but.

Diagnosed at a very young age as cognitively impaired, Day struggled through many aspects of his childhood. Everyday activities that seemed routine to other kids were sometimes a challenge for him.

But through all the struggles, there was one unmistakable trait anyone who had the chance to meet the teenager picked up on right away: He was incredibly outgoing.

“He’s definitely well known by the people of Vestaburg,” said Day’s principal and close friend Brandon Hubbard. “He likes everyone and everyone likes him.”

So with graduation coming Sunday, Day will definitely leave a mark on the school. And as the 18-year-old senior walks down the aisle to be handed his diploma, it will be the last few steps of what’s been a long, hard journey.


Early years and the diagnosis

Day’s low birth weight wasn’t something he quickly got over. In fact, he remained well below average in weight for the first several years of his life.

Day spent several months in and out of doctor visits. His head was growing before the rest of his body. Doctors tested for water in the brain, but that wasn’t it.

At 3 months old, Day underwent hernia surgery. He still weighed just 8 pounds.

At 9 months old he was already enrolled at the William J. Seiter Educational Service Center in Greenville. Once he reached kindergarten, Day had developed rheumatic fever, an inflammatory disease that can cause heart problems. He still visits a heart doctor on an annual basis.

It was around the same time Day was diagnosed as cognitively impaired.

But with all the difficulties that came along with that diagnosis, they didn’t seem to hold him back. At an early age, Day had found his passion and it was something that helped him overcome many of the setbacks that often accompanied his disease.


His love of sports

You name the sport, Day can name his favorite athlete. LeBron James, Miguel Cabrera, Brett Favre or whoever is the enemy of the Detroit Lions, they all hold a special place in Day’s mind.

Vestaburg High School senior Phillip Day.

“I like just watching. You can see how all the players interact with the other players,” said Day, who himself loves to converse with others.

Day has always been interested in sports, whether attending Detroit Tigers’ baseball games, rooting against the Lions or chanting from the grandstand of the Michigan International Speedway.

Day became one of the more popular stars of the Vestaburg varsity football team, serving as the team’s manager. During football season’s senior night, he got the loudest cheer from the packed crowd.

But for as much as he has done for sports, he’s received just as much.

“I’ve known sports have played a big role for Phil, developmentally and with the mathematics of scoring,” Hubbard said.

Being an integral part of the team has allowed him to open up and develop socially.

“I like helping out,” said Day, who hopes to one day have a career in sports. “I would like to work at the ballpark or something; work on the field so I can just watch the game.”

As much as sports have had to offer the graduating senior, fitting into the Vestaburg community has been the main contributing factor to the young man’s development.


The high school years

“I think in a larger school he would have been lost in the system or picked on and bullied,” said Day’s mother, Chris.

But that was never the case for Day, who not only gained popularity among his peers but was always considered just another Wolverine.

“He’s been one of the more popular ones,” Hubbard said. “Everyone knows Phil.”

“He’s so caring,” Chris Day said. “If he’s your friend or you’re his friend, you’ve got a friend for life.”

A large part of that has been Hubbard, who has developed a close relationship with Day.

“He’s like a best friend, someone to look up to,” said Day of Hubbard.

The two spend a lot of time together, including competing as rival football teams on Xbox 360. Hubbard is a Michigan State buff and, on par with rooting against his father, a Michigan fan, Day bleeds the Ohio State scarlet and gray. The two regularly battle each other in the video-game world as the two Big Ten opponents.

The connection between the student and principal has extended far beyond a few texts and video games. For as much as the administrator has meant to Day, the student has had an equal impact on the mentor.

“He’s become a big part of my life too. I’ve seen such a huge change in improvement,” Hubbard said. “He has a good sense of humor, you can joke around and pick on him.”

Hubbard said graduation means Day will move on with his life and move past his life with Vestaburg Community Schools, but the future is bright.


Life after high school

The development of Phillip Day doesn’t end when he is handed his high school diploma Sunday.

There is still plenty of learning to do for the teenager, who will enroll in Project Search transition program with the Montcalm Area Intermediate School District next school year.

As part of the program Day will learn skills to help him be self-sufficient and live his daily life on his own. He will learn to do laundry, clean, cook and everything else required of living on his own. It will also help him develop skills which will help him earn a job and ultimately a career.

But as he transitions from his time at Vestaburg High School to Project Search, officials say he already has a jump start.

“He’s matured both socially and employee skill-wise,” said Peggy Throop, one of Day’s teacher at Vestaburg. “He’s become more responsible.”

While at high school Day took several steps that helped him prepare for life after school. He’s assisted janitorial staff in cleaning the school, washing windows, vacuuming and anything else he can pitch in doing.

“I think the more (responsibility) he’s had, the more responsible he’s become,” Throop said.

And as he moves from high school into the next phase of his life, his mother has no doubt he can succeed, thanks to those who have helped him along the way.

“With a little bit of support, he’s conscientious enough to do these things,” she said. “He may not have a law degree or be a brain surgeon, but he can be successful.”

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