Valley Voices

Troubled teen fights his way from homelessness to happiness, thanks to caring teachers

This is a Cinderella story except that Ella is a fella and the Fairy Godmother is two dedicated teachers.

Leslie Sheets Cunning

Zachary Dilldine had been kicked out of every Clovis high school for fighting. Now, don’t get the idea that his parents didn’t try to keep Zach under control. They did try, but Zach seemed to be an angry kid.

Zach’s mom went on Google to find unconventional school options. The ones she found were never a good fit until he ended up at Sierra Charter School (K-12). SCS is an alternative public school as opposed to a traditional public school – the program of study is personalized to each student.

During the 10th grade, Zach was having debilitating headaches. Because of his fighting past, over time he had been prescribed a bucket load of meds and none of them worked. Finally the doctors at Community Regional Medical Center gave him a brain scan and found a tumor the size of a half a golf ball. The tumor was completely removed.

Zach’s parents thought his turmoil would stop after the operation, but it didn’t because Zach continued using drugs. After years of prescribed meds – it was what he knew.

Everything collided one night when Zach went home high on ecstasy. He and his stepdad got into a fight, resulting in Zach being kicked out of the house. Within hours, his folks called him and asked him to come home.

“I couldn’t live with myself for what I had done to my stepdad,” says Zach. “I couldn’t go home.” That night was the last time he used.

He crashed with friends and when he ran out of options, Zach became homeless. He found a boarded-up house near Kings Canyon Road and Willow Avenue and slept there for three months. The one thing Zach kept was a cell phone (he has the same number to this day) so his folks could call him and not worry.

One day a teacher called from SCS. (The teacher didn’t give permission to use her name, so she will be Mrs. A.) Mrs. A. reminded Zach that he had not been to school in weeks, and he told her what happened since she had last seen him. She asked him to come to school early the next day and said that if he continued with school, she would help him.

Zach said he’d try, so she brought him a change of clothes, some food and the basic necessities. Zach kept his word, got to school early to study and continued with 10th grade while he was homeless.

The school found Zach a job as a busboy and things were looking up. He was sleeping at friend’s houses near his work and when he had to go to school, he would take the bus to SCS. (The school gives bus tokens to students who need them.) He also got a bike to ride. Zach’s life was working and bringing up his grades. In the 11th grade he had saved enough to rent an apartment with his mom as a cosigner.

Mrs. A. moved on and the next teacher to take an interest in Zach was Dave Hooper. He saw that Zach had come from a .5 grade-point average to a 3.5.

“Mr. Hooper said if I finished my senior year in six months, he would write me the most amazing letter of recommendation,” remembers Zach. “I did, and Mr. Hooper did, and I still have that letter.” Zach graduated in 2010.

With that letter, Zach was able to attend Fresno City College at no cost. He also got a Pell Grant for a few thousand dollars and he put it all toward future rent. His landlord was amazed, “Are you sure you want all of this on rent?” Zach smiled and said, “I don’t want to have to think about rent.”

In 2012, Zach earned an associate’s degree in child development. He got a job as a day care teacher, then became the lead teacher. He was making minimum wage, and it was not enough. So he went to work at a cable company and was there for four years.

During this time, he went on and met the wonderful Quanie and her 3-year-old daughter, Emily. They have been married for four years. Quanie is in her final semester at Fresno State and will receive her bachelor’s in child development this year. She hopes to be a substitute teacher while she earns a master’s degree.

As for Zach, he changed jobs again and is now working with a fellow SCS grad at “Civilized Technology – a company that does everything IT,” says Zach.

He also became a Christian and is the children’s pastor at his church.

Down the line, Quanie and Zach would like to give Emily a sibling, and Zach would like to open a mom and pop doughnut shop. Don’t be surprised when it happens, because that’s the way the Cinderfella story usually ends: You know – and they lived happily ever after.

This year Sierra Charter School celebrates 20 years of academic success.

Leslie Sheets Cunning of Fresno, a free-lance writer, is retired from The Bee. After a few years of lunch with the ladies, a try at acting for Good Company Players and having her fill of “Judge Judy,” she works part-time at Sierra Charter School and volunteers for Saint Agnes Medical Center. Contact: