Atwater student overcame abuse, loneliness, and depression. How she found her calling

Atwater High senior Kaya Briscoe-Mattis has won numerous FFA awards during her time at Atwater High.
Atwater High senior Kaya Briscoe-Mattis has won numerous FFA awards during her time at Atwater High.

Kaya Briscoe-Mattis doesn’t get a day off when it comes to her animals. Whether it’s Christmas day, Thanksgiving or any other holiday or weekend, the Atwater High senior has to carve out to time in her schedule to go to school to feed her rabbits.

On school days, Kaya often spends 12-hour days at Atwater High. She spends so much time there some of her teachers joke she lives there. Most of her time is spent in the ag department.

Most days she’ll arrive around 6:15 in the morning for Future Farmers of America meetings. Then some days she’ll meet with the judging team or other days she’ll work with the speech team.

After going through her daily class schedule, she’ll work with an after-school program. Then before she leaves for the day, she’ll feed her rabbits are 6 p.m. She has to make sure the animals are fed when there is no school, which means she has to make trips to school on weekends and holidays.

For Kaya, 17, being involved with FFA has changed her life.

“FFA is a lot like a family,” Kaya said. “The advisers treat you like family. Once you get involved the other students are like family.”

Kaya thriving in FFA or doing well in school seemed impossible about 10 years ago. Growing up, school was a struggle for Kaya. She said other children teased her because she was labeled a special ed student. She didn’t have many friends.

Most of her challenges could be traced back to when she was physically abused as a baby by her biological father. It’s a story she’s shared many times as she’s grown older.

As an infant, Kaya spent three of her first four months of life in the hospital after being a victim of child abuse.

When she was just one month old she suffered two skull fractures, seven broken ribs and a broken leg. She had to be flown to a hospital in Oakland from Tracy. Doctors had to put a shunt in her head to provide relief from the swelling and blood coagulating in her head.

The traumatic brain injury she suffered from the incident affected her when she began school.

According to Kay’a mother, Melissa Mattis, Kaya started having real trouble when she was in fourth grade. Instead of being held back a year, Kaya was put on an Individualized Education Program (IEP) in fifth grade.

“She would come home crying from school, was unable to finish homework, sent home before getting the help,” Melissa Mattis said in an e-mail. “Going to school became a fight every morning because she was not understanding. She had phonics and comprehension issues and that is what the IEP focused on targeting.”

It was when she began working with animals that she started doing better in school. When she was 9 years old, she got involved with 4-H and began raising and showing rabbits.

“We had horses, but they are a lot of money,” Kaya said. “Rabbits are smaller and easier for a 9-year-old to start out. I always wanted to work with animals. It teaches you to be more independent. You have something to take care of. It teaches you how to manage your time and to be more responsible.”

When she started as a freshman at Atwater, she immediately got involved with FFA.

“As a freshman, she was always around,” said Atwater teacher Shelby West, who has been one of Kaya’s FFA advisers. “She already had an FFA shirt.”

In her four years at Atwater, Kaya has been one of the most accomplished FFA members to come through the school’s program.

Kaya has been a state winner for small animal care and production proficiency and was top 10 in the nation, she’s won Merced County Fair small animal round robin, has been the champion rabbit exhibitor in FFA the past 3 years, has been named the top youth breeder in the nation for her variety of rabbits the past 2 years.

Kaya also recently served as a delegate for California at the FFA National Convention in Indianapolis.

“It was an eye-opening experience. It showed me a lot of the different aspects of FFA that you don’t see at the chapter level,” Kaya said.

Kaya still tries to shed the label of being a special ed student.

“Being classified as a special ed student has led to depression,” she said. “There were times I didn’t want to go to school. I wasn’t motivated. When you’re in special ed, people expect less from you. They don’t expect you to do certain things.”

That hasn’t been the case for Kaya at Atwater. There’s been no ceiling for her academically and she’s treated like everyone else by her advisers. Kaya currently has a 3.69 GPA.

“She’s always been straightforward,” said Atwater teacher Kaylyn Davenport, who serves as one of her FFA advisers. “She’s always demanded us to hold her to the highest standard and it’s always been easy to do so. She wants to be the best version of herself.”

“I’ve never treated her different,” West added. “She’s never needed to be treated differently.”

Kaya feels FFA has changed her life.

She says her Atwater advisers have inspired her so much that she plans to go to school to become an agriculture teacher. Her plan is to spend two years at a junior college and then study agriculture science at Fresno State or Chico State.

“Being involved in FFA has brought me out of my comfort zone,” Kaya said. “It’s helped me discover a passion. Once I got in 4H and started working with rabbits, my confidence went way up. I started making a few friends. I was around people who shared my same interests.”

After four years of Kaya always hanging around the ag department, it’s going to be different when she graduates. She’s going to be missed.

At a school with over 1,100 FFA members, Kaya has definitely left her mark.