Santa Barbara News Press

“The Day that Changed the Course of My Life”

Until the spring of 2004, Julie Delk’s life felt pretty normal. She was a sophomore at San Marcos High, earning passable grades, helping with the student yearbook and working at a movie theater for extra spending cash. But since then, Julie, who graduated from San Marcos on Thursday, has been to hell and back.

Until the spring of 2004, Julie Delk’s life felt pretty normal.

She was a sophomore at San Marcos High, earning passable grades, helping with the student yearbook and working at a movie theater for extra spending cash.

But since then, Julie, who graduated from San Marcos on Thursday, has been to hell and back.

In March of 2004 she administered CPR to her father as he lay dying. Seven months later, when Julie was a junior, she found the body of her mother, who had committed suicide.


For several months afterward, Julie, the youngest of the couple’s three children, lived alone in the family’s condominium, going to school at San Marcos during the day and working full time at night.

“I just wanted to keep myself busy so I wouldn’t have to think about it,” she said.

After about six months, the home sold.

Knowing Julie had no place to go in Santa Barbara, the families of several school district employees — including Superintendent Brian Sarvis and his wife, Ann — took her under their wing.

Julie graduated with a GPA of about 3.6, but her SAT score wasn’t so hot.

Yet she earned a first-year full ride at UC Berkeley, where she plans to study business. The grants she received from the university and nonprofit groups such as the Santa Barbara Scholarship Foundation total roughly $26,000 — enough for a full year, living expenses included. Next year she must re-apply.

Julie is frank about why the school accepted her application.

“My essay got me in,” she said, sitting on an outdoor bench on the quiet campus of San Marcos about a week before graduation.

It begins like this:

“March 27, 2004, was the day that changed the course of my life.”


Julie was in her room, blow-drying her hair. Her mom and dad were returning from the hospital. Her father, Charlie Delk, had had complications from a recent bypass surgery. A minute or so after their return, her mother shrieked, “Julie, come!”

Julie hurried out of her room and saw her father lying on the floor, sweating and fading in and out of consciousness. She and her mother were in shock, unsure what to do.

Her father said, “It’s OK,” but then stopped breathing.

Julie and her mother phoned 911, and Julie administered CPR to her 76-year-old father. The paramedics arrived shortly after and rushed him to the hospital. But by the next morning, the man who retired from his architecture job to raise Julie while her mother went back to college was brain dead. Her mother instructed doctors to let him go.

Julie was devastated. “He was my stabilizer and constant companion,” she wrote. But it is the death of her mother, Sonja Delk, that Julie still cannot discuss.

After her father’s death, she knew it would be difficult to live alone with her mother, who suffered from severe depression. But Julie didn’t understand the depth of her troubles.

For instance, her mother’s busy college schedule wasn’t the only reason she was often unavailable when Julie was growing up. It was also because doctors had diagnosed her as bipolar.

“She was in another realm.”

As late as 2003-2004, Ms. Delk was in and out of mental institutions.

“My father hid these things from me to try to protect me,” Julie wrote. “As a result, my mother and I did not have the closest typical relationship.”

Already strained, their relationship worsened.

The death of Julie’s father accelerated her mother’s mental decline. She became increasingly obsessed with aging and sank to new lows after her 54th birthday. Then, one week later, came the worst day of Julie’s life: Nov. 5, 2004.

The teen came home from work, and noticed something amiss — her mother wasn’t in the room in which she tended to be at that time of day. Julie started walking up the stairs and found her mother dead on a couch. She had shot herself.

When Julie was in her darkest hours, educators rallied around her. Teacher Laura Willbanks and her husband, Michael, signed the papers necessary to become her legal guardians. The Sarvises — Mrs. Sarvis works at San Marcos High School as a guidance counselor — let her stay at their home. Eventually, she moved in with Alejandra Aranovich, a former San Marcos psychologist who has since taken a job at La Cuesta alternative school. (Ms. Aranovich’s son is also a friend of one of Julie’s older brothers.)

Ms. Aranovich was in her office when Mrs. Sarvis called to tell the story of a student in distress — Julie. Mrs. Sarvis was hoping Ms. Aranovich would refer the student to resources that could help.

Eventually Mrs. Sarvis mentioned Julie’s name.

“I started crying,” Ms. Aranovich said. “I had to leave work for a while.”

She went out to her car and called her son, who attended NYU with Julie’s brother. She regained her composure and returned to the office that day. She decided she wanted to take Julie in.

Mrs. Sarvis said it wasn’t Julie’s dire circumstances alone that led so many to come to her aid. It was also her personality, which Mrs. Sarvis described as magnetic and endearingly dry.

“She’s a funny, funny young lady,” Mrs. Sarvis said.

For a while, Julie came into Mrs. Sarvis’ office almost every day, but not just for counseling. She had decided she wanted to become a better student.

“Before this happened, she was probably a B-minus student,” Mrs. Sarvis said. “She came to me and said, ‘I had this terrible year. What can I do?’ ”

Mrs. Sarvis encouraged her to take more rigorous courses.

“She really did enjoy being with a more excelled group as far as students went,” she said. “Her parents weren’t really her motivators. They had had many children; she was the youngest. She really did take that push on by herself.” (Julie’s father had six other children from a previous marriage.)

Now, life is more or less back to normal. Julie has many good friends and her bedroom is stocked so full of DVDs that Ms. Aranovich jokes that it resembles a video store. She owns at least 200 movies, her favorite being a German drama called “The Princess and the Warrior.”

When Julie turned 18 in October, the Sarvises held a birthday party for her at their house. In attendance were Julie’s brothers, who came from Los Angeles and Sacramento, and her girlfriends from school. In all, 18 people sat around the table. When Julie’s friends were departing, she walked out to the car to see them off. Mrs. Sarvis — whose six children are all grown — was surprised to see Julie return to the house; she wanted to finish the night with the adults.

“She has made an imprint on our hearts,” Mrs. Sarvis said. “It’s a lifelong relationship. It’s not something that’s just going to go away with high school.”