COLUMBUS — RaiLeigh Strommen had to grow up early.
Her mother died when Strommen was 5. Strommen had to help care for her siblings, alongside her grandparents. Her mother's boyfriend became her adoptive father.
"I wouldn't want to go back and change things, even though that sounds terrible," she said.
To be clear, Stommen misses her mom, especially during milestones like prom.
"I can't go dress shopping with my mom," she said.
But she learned to move forward, and believes that working through painful experiences have made her stronger.
"You wake up in the morning and you think it's going to be a good day," she said.
Strommen, a senior at Columbus High School, has become a leader in classes and extra-curricular activities. She plans to pursue a degree in teaching and wants to work with students in a small town like the one she grew up in.
Helping raise her siblings left her with an appreciation for teaching — and for leadership.
It bleeds through in the way that she talks about her courses at school, especially her work with Family, Career and Community Leaders of America, a group focusing on family and consumer sciences education. Strommen is a state officer in the group.
"I always wanted to not only lead my chapter or school in something, but I always wanted to take it to the next level," she said.
This year, as part of an FCCLA project, Strommen is examining mental health advocacy for students.
"Montana definitely needs to work on it," she said. "You don't want to speak for everyone, but there is an issue."
At its simplest, Strommen wants to find more ways for kids to enjoy attending school.
"Growing up, I didn't have anywhere else that I felt I could go. I really liked coming to school," she said. "You don't have to go to school thinking, 'I don't want to be here.'"
The project is part of the more active role that Strommen takes in FCCLA. She's a state officer, and credits the group for improving her public speaking and overall confidence.
That state officer role is something her subject-area teacher in Columbus, Lorie Martinez, nudged her toward.
"I just knew that this would be a perfect opportunity for her," Martinez said. "I know she's such a dedicated, hardworking person."
But what Strommen has continued to do outside the classroom is why Martinez says she's "stronger than any 17-year-old that I have met in my life."
Last summer, with her final year of high school in sight, Strommen's father was seriously injured in a motorcycle wreck.
In some ways, it was deja vu.
"Obviously, I wasn't ready for it ... but I was ready for it in the sense of, OK, it's time to buckle down and get through the day, and do it again tomorrow," Strommen said.
There were nightly trips to the hospital in Billings after twice-a-day volleyball practice and shifts at her part-time job in Columbus.
"It's all kind of a blur," Strommen said.
Her dad is recovering amid Strommen's homecoming activities, volleyball practices, and college decisions. Strommen is considering schools like Dickinson State in North Dakota, Montana State University Billings, and Lewis and Clark College. She's likely to run track wherever she attends — she's a Class B state meet finalist in sprint events.
Martinez believes those experiences, and how Strommen has forged a path forward, will help her connect with her students when she becomes a teacher.
"She is going to be able to reach out to others and help other kids," Martinez said. "I really believe she's going to be able to go and make an impact."