At first glance, Natalie Hinau might seem like any other high school senior. Good grades. A winning smile. Carefree attitude and a quick wit.

But look a little deeper, at the adversity she has faced and the trials she has overcome to get where she is, and you begin to realize why Hinau is so extraordinary.

Hinau said her personal demons began to take shape early on. When she was in the fourth grade, trouble at home became hard to shrug off. She compartmentalized it. Hiding it away would be a strategy, she thought, that would allow her to cope.

“When I was in the eighth grade, my uncle passed away,” she said. “That hit us all hard. I didn’t talk about it. I kept it all to myself.”

Again, Hinau managed to cope and to pursue her budding interest in the arts. Drawing, painting, poetry, even hula dancing.

She had an outlet.

Then the unthinkable occurred in her junior year of high school.

“I was raped,” she said. “After that, I became really depressed. I didn’t want to do anything.”

Hinau responded the way she always did, by retreating further into her own head. It was a terrible strategy to cope, but Hinau said it was the best way she knew to deal with it. Luckily for her, she said, someone noticed. Someone cared.

“The second semester, my culinary instructor stepped in,” she said. “He said he could tell something was up, and he stepped in to help. He really helped me to build myself back up.”

That instructor, Robert Vanderbloemen, helped Hinau discover a new outlet for her creativity in the culinary arts. She embraced every aspect of it, from the science behind food to preparation and presentation to catering. The culinary program was her way to move on.

“It’s been hugely important for me,” she said. “And his wife (Jaime Vanderbloemen) is my guidance counselor. They’ve both been there for me whenever I needed them.”

Vanderbloemen said at first he was not aware of what Hinau had been through.

“A lot of it I didn’t even know about until later,” he said. “I just knew something was wrong and she needed help. It’s one of those things you hate to hear. It shouldn’t happen to anyone. That she was able to move past it and become so successful is really amazing.”

Simply finding a way to get out of bed in the morning after what Hinau endured would be a small miracle.

But she has done more than just cope. She has conquered. She has flourished.

“Not to be too overzealous about it, but she’s probably one of the best students I’ve ever had,” Vanderbloemen said. “She’s dedicated, she’s hardworking. She’s willing to do anything asked of her.”

Hinau was awarded the Peoria Educational Enrichment Foundation’s Against All Odds scholarship. She will begin classes at Northern Arizona University in the fall, where she will join the university’s school of hotel and restaurant management.

An advanced placement student in German, Hinau hopes to score highly enough to test out of entry level German classes in college and also plans to take advantage of NAU’s study abroad programs. In career terms, she is setting her sights high.

“I one day hope to be CEO of my own international hotel,” she said. “Or cruise line.”

And if Cactus High School ever starts a hotel and restaurant management program, Hinau said she will be there.

“I understand they are talking about putting together a hospitality program and if they do I would love to come back as a teacher,” she said. “It would be my chance to give back.”

As happy as he is to see her succeed, Vanderbloemen said he hates to see her go.

“There are a lot of seniors I’ll miss having around, and she’s definitely one of them,” he said.

Now that her time in high school is over, Hinau said she is anxious and a little nervous.

“It’s definitely bittersweet,” she said. “Especially when it comes to the culinary room. I’ve become very attached. With everything I’ve gone through, it’s kind of become my second home. It’s my place where everything is OK, everything is fine, everything is normal. It’s scary to leave.”

Yet that nervousness gives way to excitement over what the future holds and the knowledge that her family at Cactus will always be there for her.

“I’ll definitely stay in touch. You see those kinds of stories, people staying connected with their instructors from high school, and you think that only happens in movies. You wish you had that. Well, I really do have that.”

Jeff Dempsey may be reached at 623-876-2531 or

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