Congratulations, St. Mary’s Class of 2011

Principal Terry Lyle presents Josh with his diploma during the commencement ceremony in St. Mary’s Atrium. 

Friday was a day to celebrate Josh and Maurice, two young men who live at St. Mary’s Home, and to reflect on how far they have come as they prepare for their future.

“For most of us, living is relatively easy. We get up in the morning and get dressed and drive to work,” special educator Judith Green said during her keynote speech at the graduation ceremony for St. Mary’s Class of 2011.

“For Maurice and Joshua, it is not easy,” said Green, director of Southeastern Cooperative Educational Programs, or SECEP. “They have struggled to live, they have to depend on others, and they have fought hard to get where they are today.”

Every child and young adult at St. Mary’s attends classes, either at the Home through a partnership with SECEP or at Norfolk and Virginia Beach public schools. Graduation signals the end of formal education for young people who are 21 or will turn 21 in the next year. Currently, young adults must find other living arrangements, such as group homes, before they turn 22, although St. Mary’s is planning to open an adult wing in 2012.

Families, guardians, staff, friends and other residents gathered in the Atrium for this year’s ceremony, which began with four of the younger children presenting colors and also included a video tribute featuring photos of the two graduates through the years.

The caregivers and teachers who knew the graduates the best shared a bit about them. “You haven’t really experienced St. Mary’s until you’ve met Maurice,”  who loves to sing and dance, said teacher Kimberley Curll; as if to prove her point, he smiled and vocalized and gestured exuberantly through much of the ceremony.

Nancy Bryan gave the family tribute. She said her son Josh has been a blessing and has  taught her to “learn to appreciate the small victories.” She also thanked the staff at St. Mary’s Home for taking good care of him.

Before the keynote speech, St. Mary’s CEO William C. Giermak noted that Green is retiring this year and said the Home was honored to have one of her last official acts be to speak at commencement.

Earlier Friday, the teaching staff presented Terry Lyle with a paver in her honor to celebrate her 10th anniversary as principal of  SECEP REACH (Raising  Expectations and Abilities for Children with Complex Health Needs). The paver has been placed along the walkway at St. Mary’s entrance.

Graduation Day

From left, Kim Kelly, her son, Greg, and WTKR anchor Barbara Ciara. Greg presented the bouquet of flowers to his mother during today’s graduation ceremony. He also used his computerized communication device to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in a surprise for his mother and the staff, family and friends gathered in St. Mary’ s Atrium. 

Seven years ago, Kim Kelly was scared when she brought her son to live at St. Mary’s Home — scared that no one could care for Greg as well as she and her mother did. 
“When I was able to see all they did for him — the care he received, the love that he received — it was more than I could give him on my own. … St. Mary’s was the best decision for him,” Kelly recalled today as Greg and five other young adults graduated from the Home.
Kelly said it was hard to “put seven years of wonderful” into just a few minutes as she spoke during the ceremony. She thanked the staff for loving her child and all of the children, and for making St. Mary’s a place where Greg could be happy and safe. 
“Angels really do exist,” she said. “They exist right here.”
The young people who graduated today are 21, the age young adults leave the Home, or will turn 21 in the next year, and graduation signals the end of their formal education.The graduates will be missed as they move on to other places, such as adult intermediate care facilities or group homes.
The caregivers and teachers who knew the graduates the best shared a bit about them during the ceremony and talked about how much they had learned from Demetrias, Devonta, Greg, Justin, Katheryne and Steven. They reminisced about planning birthday parties, decorating beds, sneaking special treats and watching the children grow into young adults. “You don’t see them as your students — you look at them as your children,” said teacher Gay James Parson. 

WTKR NewsChannel 3 anchor Barbara Ciara, the keynote speaker, said it was obvious from hearing the  stories that “you guys — you’re not staff, you’re family.”

“My grandmother used to say that ‘Children are like lumps of clay,’ ” Ciara said. “What she meant by that is each person who touches a child leaves an impression. And what I’ve found here today is there are a lot of good impressions on the children who are growing and living here at St. Mary’s. You walk in here and you’re just enveloped by the love and the caring, and it’s just a good place to be.”

WTKR aired a story about graduation during its 4 p.m. newscast, but Ciara also promised to come back to share more about St. Mary’s Home, which has been caring for Virginia children for 65 years.

One of the Happiest, Yet Saddest, Days of the Year

Smiling and wearing blue caps and gowns, 12 residents filed into St. Mary’s Atrium this morning to the familiar strains of “Pomp and Circumstance.” Mikey even pumped his fist. 

Graduation Day is one of the happiest days of the year at the Home, a rite of passage that signals completion of the graduates’ formal education. Yet it’s also one of the saddest days; the graduates are 21, or will reach that age soon, and so they will be leaving the Home. They may move, for example, to an adult group home.
“The people here are so caring and so loving,” Devon’s mother, Tia, said as she delivered the parent tribute during the ceremony. “I thank you. I really wish he could stay, but I know he has to move on to make room for the next special child.” 
Lisa Suhay, an English teacher and author of eight children’s books, gave the keynote address. Suhay has come to know St. Mary’s Home well as she has worked on a new edition of her book “There Goes a Mermaid! A NorFolktale,” proceeds of which will in part benefit the children and young adults who live here. The Home, she said, “is a place of deliberate acts of kindness, where minds and spirits grow together.”
Each resident who comes to live at St. Mary’s Home ends up finding a special friend among the staff of the Home and the Southeastern Cooperative Educational Programs’ REACH Program teaching team. (REACH stands for “raising expectations and abilities for children with complex health needs.”)  The caregivers who knew today’s graduates the best shared a bit about them — their infectious laughs, their million-dollar smiles, their playfulness, their determination and their independent spirits. 
Congratulations, Anthony, Crystle, Devon, Ericka, Jamie, Jo Jo, Michelle, Mikey, Patrick, Renee, Vickie and Wayne. You are loved, and you will be missed.