BRIGHT FUTURES — Groves teens pulled each other through years of tragedy to stay on top

Published 12:34 am Wednesday, May 31, 2023

GROVES — “When you fall down, I’ll pick you up.”

That’s the phrase Alyssa Harper and Desiree Hoag use to describe their life-long friendship, which, oddly enough, began that way.

“She doesn’t remember this at all, but this was traumatic for me,” Hoag said.

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They were in kindergarten at Van Buren Elementary School in adjoining classrooms. And near the restroom was a stone wall.

“I tripped on the corner of the stone wall,” Hoag said. “I fell. I was a kindergartener, so the world was ending. I had a booboo and I was dying. I was crying.”

She was still crying and lying on her back when she looked up.

“I remember just looking up and I see this shadow of this lion,” Hoag said, referring to Harper’s curly hair. “I didn’t see a face or anything because I was on the ground looking up. So there’s this crazy shadow thing and it doesn’t say anything to me. It just sticks out its hand and helped me up. And ever since then, we’ve been best friends.”

Harper laughed.

“I never knew how we became friends,” she said.

Desiree Hoag, left, will be attending Texas A&M this fall and Alyssa Harper will be attending Lamar University. (Monique Batson/The News)

But for both, it was almost destiny.

Cancer was very strong in Hoag’s family, with her father getting his first diagnosis at age 16. He died the week before kindergarten roundup.

“I definitely believe God was paving a way for me to have people in my life to love and care for me,” she said. “I met Alyssa and her family has been my family since I was 6.”

Harper’s parents struggled to conceive and were able to have only one biological child. But at 6 years old, she quite literally picked up a sister.

In fifth grade, Hoag was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.

“I remember that vividly,” Harper said. “I was standing around a tree laughing, and she said, ‘Alyssa, I was diagnosed with cancer.’”

“I was a fifth grader,” Hoag said. “I didn’t know how to tell someone something like that, I just knew I had to tell her.”

Hoag had a thyroidectomy and continues to get scans every five years. But, while her cancer was easy to treat, he mother’s was not. She died the following year.

And when they were freshman, Harper lost her grandmother and Hoag lost her grandfather three months apart.

“People can be best friends their whole lives and not have to go through what we already have at 17 and 18 years old,” Hoag said.

Harper doesn’t say much, but she doesn’t have to.

“A lot of times I hear my thought coming out of her mouth,” she said with a laugh.

Despite the struggles, Harper and Hoag have always been active at Port Neches-Groves High School and First Baptist Church Groves. In addition to a multitude of clubs and organizations the two participate in, Harper was on the drumline while Hoag was a varsity twirler. And at church, Harper plays drums and Hoag sings for the Praise Team.

Academically, the two always worked hard.

Desiree Hoag, left, and Alyssa Harper graduated from Port Neches-Groves High School May 25. Harper was valedictorian and Hoag was salutatorian. (Courtesy photo)

“We knew we wanted to be at the top of the class,” Harper said.

At the beginning of their senior year, they were two of six tied for valedictorian.

“We always had so many people trying to support us,” Hoag said. “We were never trying to tear each other down. It was never a competitive-type thing. We’ve always just pushed each other to be the best that we can be.”

The results were announced in February, but they received a bit of a premonition two months prior while playing a White Elephant Christmas game.

They drew numbers — Harper drawing one; Hoag drawing two.

And they thought: What if this comes true?

That day they put the pieces of paper inside the cases of their cell phones. And they were still there May 25 when Harper graduated as valedictorian and Hoag as salutatorian.

This fall, they’ll separate for the first time since kindergarten.

Harper will attend Lamar University to study mechanical engineering. Hoag will travel to Texas A&M where she will study biomedical science on her way to ultimately becoming an oncologist.

“I’ve never been more than 12 minutes down the road from Alyssa,” Hoag said. “We’re going to manage. We’ll figure it out.”