From homelessness to Brandeis: Twin sisters are an inspiration at Hope High School

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A report by Linda Borg for the Providence Journal.

The Valdez twins are rock stars in a school that isn’t known for its success stories.

They are graduating at the top of their class at Hope High School, getting major scholarships to Brandeis University and winning track meets across Rhode Island.

They have accomplished all of this despite formidable odds. Born in Puerto Rico, they moved to the Dominican Republic and then Florida before landing in Rhode Island at age 9. The twins have attended more than 10 schools in their short lives.

When they arrived in Florida, Lisbeth and Leinni spoke no English. They were held back in fourth grade despite earning A’s. The twins, however, used the setback as a turning point.

“I was so embarrassed,” Lisbeth wrote in her college essay. “I ignored the kids who teased us. Even though it was hard to accept the fact that I was held back, I see that it was worth it. They made the right decision because I learned to challenge myself and, since that moment, I haven’t stopped challenging myself.”

Meanwhile, their mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Their father left. And, for six months, they lived in a homeless shelter with their younger sister.

Yet the twins came to school every day. They developed into two of the top middle distance runners in Rhode Island, earning multiple All-State honors. They never made any excuses. In fact, few of their teachers knew they were homeless.

“In my 34 years at Hope High School, they are the top ladies I’ve ever coached,” said head track coach Thom Spann. “They are two individuals who don’t need to be pushed. Sometimes they put too much on their plate. It’s their determination, their work ethic, their perseverance.”

A couple of summers ago, Spann recalls seeing two girls biking down Cranston Street in the pouring rain. It was the twins, biking to Central High School, where they were taking chemistry.

During their senior year, Leinni and Lisbeth took three advanced placement classes: English, physics and computer science.

They also enrolled in two college classes, at the Community College of Rhode Island and Roger Williams University. And they aced all of them, earning 4.0 GPAs for their senior year.

“It’s not that we’re so smart,” Lisbeth said. “It’s that we keep trying until we get it.”

Leinni and Lisbeth each applied to 23 colleges. They were accepted at nearly a dozen, including Brandeis, where they each received a $57,000 scholarship.

“They have tremendous drive,” said Lynn Harrigan, their guidance counselor at Hope High.

As competitive as the twins are, they rarely compete against each other. For a long time, they were in the running to finish as the two top-ranked students in their class.

Harrigan recalled their reaction when she told them that Leinni wouldn’t be salutatorian (instead she finished third in the class).

Lisbeth, the class valedictorian, started crying because she felt badly for her sister.

But Leinni said, “It’s OK. At least one of us will be up there.”

Even during track meets, one sister will often hang back to urge the other on.

“Above all, they are the most wonderful human beings,” Harrigan said. “They are always humble, always grateful.”

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