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A Mighty Warrior: Youth Caregivers Hold on to Hope

Why do students drop out of high school, and what can be done to prevent it? That's the question being tackled by the award-winning PBS show "Frontline" in a project called "Drop-out nation."

One surprising answer: more than one in five dropouts left school to take care of sick family members.

Rachel Parks dropped out of high school to take care of her mother when she was 17.

"Growing up, I watched my mom take care of her mom," Rachel said. "And that is where I think I got that."

Her mom, Andrea, suffers from Cystic Fibrosis. She has a hard time walking and requires an oxygen machine to breathe. Rachel also takes care of her mother's fiancé, Andre, who has end stage heart failure. She feeds him and changes his IVs.

"I did everything. I still do everything", said Parks.

Rachel cooks, she cleans, and she cares for her two younger sisters. Taking care of everyone comes at a cost: her education.

"I dropped out at 17, but I dropped out to actually take care of everyone", she said.

Rachel is one of more than 1.3 million youth caregivers in the United States. They suffer from depression at much higher rates than their peers.

They're also at risk for dropping out of school. Of all the high-schoolers who don't finish school, 22% say they dropped out to care for a sick family member, according to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Rachel's mother, father, and two older sisters also dropped out of school for various reasons. But Rachel, a good student who excelled in math, had high hopes of succeeding.

"I wanted to be the first one in my family that walked down the aisle to get my diploma. It was a very hard decision", she said.

And it was hard for her mother, Andrea.

"I can tell you as sure as I sit here that with Rachel, had there not been any health problems, I know she would have finished school", Andrea said.

Dr. Donna Cohen says youth caregivers take on huge responsibilities and they suffer for it.

Cohen said, "It takes a mighty warrior for these young children to succeed in their caregiving."

Cohen is a professor in the department of child and family studies at the University of South Florida. She says they sacrifice their own futures because there's no one else available to take care of their mothers, fathers, and grandparents.

"They often let their school performance take a lesser importance in their life even though they know they have to succeed", Cohen said.

According to her research, half of family members caring for a sick relative are depressed. Rachel is currently on medication for depression.

"You feel like nobody appreciates you. And it took a big toll on me, depression, and for years I wouldn't say anything," Rachel said.

Rachel and her family were recently evicted from their home. They're staying with friends. She's postponed her career plans - for now at least.

"I want to own my own restaurant and be the chef there", Rachel said.

First she'll have to get her GED and then go to culinary school. She just hasn't had time to do this with all her other responsibilities. Right now, she's okay with that.

Rachel said, "I had a choice and I decided to take care of everyone. It's my responsibility. Mom took care of me for 17 years, so it's my responsibility."

"She's like a saint," her mother said. "Not only does she do everything, she never ever complains…I mean I know she complains, she never complains so we can hear it - and she's never not there for us."

And she's vowed to continue to be there for as long as she can.

"I tell everybody, once I start my career and I have a nice house and all and mom and Andre are still alive, they're coming to live with me", Rachel said.

She says after all the family has been through, she can't turn away from them now.