Editor’s note: Today we start our annual series about standout graduates from area high schools. It will run Wednesday through Sunday until June 11.
It’s because of Sonny Chhim’s siblings that he’s making it to graduation.
Chhim, 18, will graduate from Kelso High School this year and go on to Western Washington University, where he will major in kinesiology. He hopes to eventually earn a doctorate in physical therapy and become a sports trainer.
But any number of things could have set him back. His parents went through a bad divorce when he was in third grade, and Chhim says he wasn’t really involved in any activities when he was in middle school. As he was growing up, his mother struggled with alcoholism and only recently got sober.
“I wasn’t able to get the support from her that I needed,” Chhim said.
Chhim has five siblings: Sarah, 23, Somit, 21, Sam, 16, Sodavid, 6, and Seak, 4.
“I was looking after my siblings and had to be an adult at a young age,” Chhim said.
Despite that, at Kelso High Chhim participated in football, track and field, drama club and history club. He also was vice president and president of the school’s “K” Club. When he goes to Western in the fall, he’ll compete on the school’s track and field team.
But it was taking care of his younger siblings and supporting his mother that helped motivate him to keep working hard.
“It was really just what helped me get through. I knew people were depending on me, and I wasn’t going to let myself fail them,” Chhim said.
Chhim’s attitude and “sunny” disposition are what set him apart in the hallways, Kelso High School Principal John Gummel said.
“He is one of the nicest young men I have ever met,”Gummel said. “He’s kind. He will give. He will bend over backwards to help kids out. Even with (everything) he’s been dealing with in his life, he’s coming out shining.”
Chhim said that he attributes his sense of responsibility to his participation in sports and school activities.
“If someone is counting on you, you better do it,” Chhim said. “I felt the pressure of being that role model. And I just kind of accepted it because its not a bad pressure. I just needed to do it.”
Chhim credits track coach Joe Krieder for supporting him and pushing him throughout high school. And looking back on it, Chhim realized that his middle school social studies teacher, Mr. Birch, was a big influence as well.
“I don’t think he even knows this, but (Mr. Birch) is the one that convinced me to run for (Associated Student Body),” Chhim said. “He just talked to me. He said, ‘Sonny, I don’t care if you run or not. You would be the best candidate for the job.’ He just kind of changed how I thought about getting involved.”
Although Chhim has had a successful run as an athlete and in leadership positions at school, Gummel said people don’t recognize him only for that reason.
“I think people will recognize him as a true friend, a true leader in the school,” Gummel said. “He’s known for his kindness, generosity, his smile and his willingness to be a friend to all. He’s just an inspiration.”