McHi senior thriving after years of setbacks & foster care
|McHi senior Heaven Wilbanks at a Lady Bulldogs practice recently. She leads McHi in steals and assists and is second on the team in scoring. She has raised her level of play in district. Photos by TJ Garcia.
BY TJ GARCIA
McALLEN – Heaven Wilbanks is tough.
No, not just basketball tough. More than that. The 5-foot-4 senior point guard is strong, stout and resilient.
Wilbanks loves contact. Loves playing against the guys, has a solid build and almost looks forward to getting hit and bumped and diving on the floor to make a play. Taking a charge is something she looks forward to.
“I would not want to get in her way,” said McHi Coach Stephanie Cantu. “I would not want to take a charge from her.”
Physicality is part of the game, Wilbanks says. And if she’s knocked down, all she does is pick herself up, dust herself off and move on to the next play.
It’s a major part of her style of play and part of why she’s a successful leader for McHi’s Lady Bulldogs (6-3, 16-17). It’s taken her some time to break out of her personal and basketball shells, but Wilbanks is now flourishing and leading McHi in assists and steals and scoring nearly 10 points a game for second best on the team.
So it’s no coincidence that her buoyant, irrepressible approach to basketball has served her well in life, too. Consider the somber and sad circumstances the 18-year-old Houston-area native has gone through before ending up in McAllen about six years ago.
She lost her mother to a drug overdose at age four growing up in Cloverleaf, an unincorporated area east of Houston, a rough and tumble neighborhood lined with dilapidated trailers and known for high poverty and low graduation rates.
“It wasn’t very pretty. We were always in a trailer,” said Wilbanks of the area she lived near Channelview flanked by refineries. “It was nothing special.”
After her mother’s death, she was sent to live with a foster-care family in the Houston area. Her father was out of the picture by that time. She stayed with that family for more than four years before eventually ending up with her grandmother. Her grandmother’s house in Cloverleaf was already a gathering place for Wilbanks’ cousins who had parents that were either incarcerated or out of their lives, she said.
Wilbanks often had to babysit of those cousins as most were younger than her. Not soon after her arrival, however, her grandmother passed away. By this time, Wilbanks was in fifth grade and was sent back to foster care for the next several weeks and was in and out of homes.
She stayed with four or five families, too many to remember, she said. After a few months of hopscotching homes in Houston, Wilbanks packed up in April 2011 and moved to McAllen to live with Ray and Michelle Gagne and their family – which includes McHi sophomore football player Trace Gagne.
Texas’ Child Protect Services reached out to Michelle Gagne, as one of Wilbanks few relatives (second cousin) after the grandmother’s death to see if she had the capacity to take her on. She did, and the Gagnes welcomed Wilbanks into their home. Currently, Wilbanks lives with Gagne’s son Devin Cuthberson and his family.
So after losing the two closest people in her life, living in about 10 different homes and families, and all the while without a father, how did Wilbanks stay focused and make it through that tumultuous period of her life?
“I was thinking, I just didn’t want to be another statistic, I guess,” said Wilbanks, who’s private and isn’t much for words. “I just wanted to get my life together.”
By most accounts, Wilbanks is a stand-up student, person and player. Described by coaches, parents and teammates as a hard worker, quiet and collaborative. She’s completing her fourth year on the varsity, and she’s is ranked in the top 10 percent of her class.
Her cousin, Michelle Gagne said that Wilbanks is simply “a very good kid,” and that she’s wise beyond her years. Her teammates praise her for her unselfishness and dedication.
“I’ve never met or played with someone who hustles as much as Heaven does. She plays with heart and give it 110 percent every game,” said senior teammate Brianna Coffee, who played with Wilbanks at Morris Middle School. “She’s very competitive, but also one of the funniest and nicest people I know. She leads by example, and it’s been very memorable playing with her these last five years.”
Wilbanks, isn’t simply getting her life together. She’s done much more than that.
Ironically, it was during the period she spent with her grandmother that she was first exposed to sports. She played with her cousins, mostly boys, and often they played with a basketball. But money was tight. They did not have a basketball goal, so mostly they just passed the ball around, Wilbanks said.
But she got a feel of sports and a basketball, and though she was a little girl, Wilbanks had to fend for herself and keep up with the boys. Until seventh grade, Wilbanks had never played organized basketball. But at Morris in North McAllen, she got on the 7th-grade team and started.
Wilbanks admits she didn’t really know what she was doing, but went full bore because she loved the non-stop action in basketball.
“I was a hyperactive child and I needed something to do,” she said. “The coaches at Morris saw my athletic ability, I guess. They just told me what to do. Basketball was something that took my mind off all the other things.”
She went on to do the same in eighth grade and developed friendships and trusted teammates through basketball such as Coffee, Celeste Saenz, Alex Gamino an others who are on the Lady Bulldogs’ varsity basketball team.
And while she’s having her best season yet in high school as a senior, Wilbanks struggled through her first few years of varsity basketball. Although she has range and a quick first step to drive, Wilbanks has always been a pass-first player – to a fault – and that has frustrated her coaches and mentors for years.
But not this year. Wilbanks is shooting more. She’s averaging nearly 10 points per game on the season, but lately she’s been on tear. In the last seven games (all in District 30-6A) she’s averaged 14 points per contest while shooting nearly 60 percent from the floor, dishing our four assists and crooking three steals.
Wilbanks was voted captain by her teammates, and coach Cantu, who enthusiastically believes in Wilbanks. She added that the team goes as the senior guard goes.
“She’s everything,” said Cantu, who’s coached Wilbanks the last two years. “She’s that one kid that everyone has the utmost respect for. She’s never disappointed us in any type of way. She’s a hard worker. She means everything to the team.”
The reserved Wilbanks would never accept such high praise, but she loves her hometown McHi Lady Bulldogs and wants badly to get into the playoffs to win a few games – even if means being selfish with the ball. She’s certainly tough enough and resilient enough to make it happen.
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