Orphan turns loss of parents into inspiration for success

Editor's Note: This story is reprinted from July 20, 1995.

Kris Eisenla remembers Aug. 29. 1994. It was the first day of school, his senior year at Beyer High School in Modesto. It also was the day AIDS killed his mother.

Tina Eisenla died one month and one day after Kris lost his father, Bruce Eisenla, to acquired immune deficiency syndrome. Over the previous eight years, their immune systems had weakened, first with HIV and then with full-blown AIDS, until they were as fragile as rice paper.

Bruce died of respiratory failure July 28, 1994. Tina buried her husband and then burned up almost overnight with pneumonia.

The day after she died, Kris went back to school.

Most people would be crushed by such a blow, hobbled for life after losing both parents so suddenly to such a cruel killer. Kris believes it made him stronger.

During his senior year, he raised his grade-point average from 3.3 to 3.83, performed with the Beyer marching band as a street drum major and played bassoon for the Beyer wind ensemble. He received more than $2,000 in scholarships.

All that while helping his grandmother, Yolanda Tomassi, raise his younger brothers.

This week in Washington, D.C., while being honored with a scholarship from the Orphan Foundation of America, Eisenla said he never looked back.

"I think their deaths inspired me," the 17-year-old said by telephone. "Your senior year in high school, most people slow down. I really picked it up. My GPA totally skyrocketed.

"The last two years I was doing everything for Mom and Dad, and when they were gone, it was time for me to get on with my life. I realized, it's time for me now."

Kris learned his parents had AIDS when his father told him, privately, asking him to promise he wouldn't tell his mother that he knew.

Because his brothers and grandmother didn't know the truth until much later, Kris said he was, in many ways, alone.

"He'd tell me how it was," his grandmother said. "He'd get into his car and sit by himself and just cry. Then he'd come back inside, smiling, and say, "Hi, Mom.' "

That was 1993, when Kris was a sophomore. He threw himself into learning more about HIV and AIDS. For the next two years, while the family told others that Bruce was battling cancer, Kris helped his parents with medications. When his mother began losing her eyesight, he took on more responsibilities.

AIDS was in the Eisenla's house for eight years, but Kris and his brothers were never infected. But quietly, AIDS began changing Kris' life.

"The dark secret at home overshadowed everything," Kris once wrote in an essay. "My concept of time changed. Everything was abbreviated and parceled out into mere minutes and seconds. I only had limited time with my parents left."

For support, Kris said he sometimes turned to his friend Victoria Nordman and her parents, Gary and Barbara Nordman. But the Nordmans said it was Kris who usually did the supporting.

"Sometimes when I've had a hard time dealing with it, I'd see him and how he's really come through," Barbara Nordman said. "He'd be paying taxes and working with the family lawyer -- stuff a normal senior wouldn't have to think about -- and doing OK with it.

"I don't know how he did it."

Those responsibilities increased when his mother died. Tomassi moved in to take care of Nicholas, 11, and Joshua, 16. But in many ways, Kris was the head of the house.

"When a lawyer called and I didn't know what to do, Kris would get on the phone and take care of it," Tomassi said. "And he was always a leader for his brothers. He'd check their report cards and make sure they were studying. He keeps me going."

Earlier this year, Kris applied for a scholarship through the Orphan Foundation of America in Washington, D.C. The organization provides, scholarships for orphaned and foster youths, according to OFA spokeswoman Gina Stracuzzi.

Kris wrote an essay. It ended with this quote from Eleanor Roosevelt:

"You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, "I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.' ... You must do the thing you cannot do."

For Kris, that thing -- the one you think you cannot do -- was survive.

The $1,000 scholarship included a weeklong trip to Washington. With 12 other OFA winners, Kris attended workshops on careers and leadership. Wednesday night, he attended a congressional reception.

While in Washington, he visited the office for the National Association of People with AIDS and volunteered to give AIDS-awareness speeches next year, while attending Chico State UNiversity. He said he wants to tell people what it's like to watch loved ones die of AIDS.

And what it's like to live again.

"I think I've been through the most devastating thing in my life, and I lived through it. I thought my whole life was over. I didn't think I could finish school or get on with life, but I did it."