SULLIVAN — Black River seniors Ben Miller and Ella Yoder could have completely different lives than they do now.
Born into the Swartzentruber Amish community, cousins Miller and Yoder could have lived simple lives free of modern conveniences and filled with farming and buggies.
Instead, they graduated Friday evening — Miller as the valedictorian — and will be headed on paths of excellence in the fields of their choice.
"Now we’re graduating," 17-year-old Yoder said. "… It’s a really big step and it’s crazy to see how far we’ve come from what we could have had and what we have now."
Miller’s family left the Amish when he was 2 1/2, right after his sister Christina was born.
"My dad loves his family and he loves the Amish community, but he believes that they don’t give their children enough options," the 18-year-old said. "It’s a simplistic life — and that’s good and all — but it takes out a lot of the choice."
Yoder’s family had a similar mindset and left the Amish when Yoder was 3 ½ after making the decision to send her older sister Mandy to public "English" school, instead of Amish school.
"That’s when it all changed and we shifted completely," Yoder said. "The biggest things for my parents were all the opportunities they wanted us to have and to see the world in a different light than what they had seen growing up."
The Yoders converted their home — just down the road from the Black River Education Center— adding electricity, indoor plumbing and modern conveniences to go with their new life.
Miller and Yoder have a good relationship with their shared Amish family. (Miller’s father, Henry, and Yoder’s mother, Lisa, are brother and sister). "I know that we are technically shunned," Miller said, "but every time we visit I have always been welcomed with open arms."
The transition from Amish culture was difficult at times, Yoder said. She remembers speaking more English at home as opposed to the Amish tradition of Dutch and her sister translating for her. Miller said it wasn’t a difficult adjustment because he was so young, but said throughout his life he has found it hard to be the first in his family to do something, such as going to public school or attending the prom. He said he depends a lot on Ella’s sister Mandy for advice.
"A lot of kids can go home and ask their parents, ‘What did you do when you were my age?’ " Miller said. "We kind of had to figure that out on our own."
If their families had remained Amish, Miller and Yoder would have graduated after eighth grade. "By now, if we hadn’t left on our own, we both probably [would have] joined the church and [would be looking to start a family]," Yoder said.
Instead, Miller is headed to The Ohio State University to study engineering, while Yoder is headed to North Central State College in Mansfield for nursing.
BRHS teacher Clayton Van Doren, who Miller said guided him to his path in engineering, said he knows Miller will make Black River proud. "He’s enthusiastic and disciplined," Van Doren said. "… He always finds a way to persevere and he’s never satisfied with not knowing."
Yoder was inspired by her mom, who — after leaving the Amish — earned her GED and went to nursing school with three young kids at home.
To retired Black River teacher Betsy Rector, nursing is the perfect field for Yoder.
"Ella was always a bright star," Rector said. "She always shined, even as a young person. She was always kind and caring toward others."
"She would have made a great Amish girl, too," Rector added. "She has always been a bloom-where-you-are-planted (type), but now she gets to go on and do so much more."
While Miller and Yoder are thankful for the opportunities they have outside Amish culture, they know some fundamental Amish values have impacted their lives just the same, like hard work and a focus on faith and family.
"Our parents are the most hardworking people and that rubs off on us," Miller said. "… "(My parents) are proud of me beyond belief and, (they say) ‘I can’t believe that you are going to be valedictorian or that you got a full ride to Ohio State; that’s crazy.’"
"All of this is a direct result of how they raised me. I couldn’t have done it without the values they instilled in me," Miller added. "… My parents (Henry and Emma) have always instilled in me a lot of hardworking values. I am just doing my job and doing the best that I can do."
Miller and Yoder have a great respect for the Amish community. "They just want to live a more simple life and I think a lot of people don’t get that especially around here," Yoder said. "… They want to be more devoted to their faith and their family and not as materialistic."
The memories of early Amish life are ones Yoder cherishes, like going to church, playing with toys on the church benches and buggy rides over to visit her grandparents.
"We don’t have a lot of memories like a lot of kids, like going to Chuck E. Cheese or something like that," Yoder said. "But the memories of that time, I wouldn’t change them."
Now, Miller and Yoder look to the future and the new paths they’ve chosen for themselves.
"I am really excited," Miller said. "… I’m ready to see what’s next."