A Special Commencement Celebration

 A Special Commencement Celebration

By Kami-Leigh Agard

There was not a dry eye in the room this past Friday, June 16 as seven P.S. 256Q at Gateway Academy special education high school students received their high school diplomas in a commencement ceremony at the Beach Channel Educational Campus auditorium. It was a crowning moment not just for the students, but also their parents and the school’s staff. And with long-time Rockaway Special Olympics Director (RSO) Joe Featherston’s moving commencement speech, the key theme was to “keep spreading love and joy.”

As the students of varying disabilities were escorted by their paraprofessionals down the aisle and assembled on stage, they were greeted with thundering applause.

After the Pledge of Allegiance, attendees were astonished when one of the graduates, Enid Corporan, burst into song, singing the National Anthem. As one parent exclaimed, “She should be on American Idol! What a voice!”

Assistant Principal Lottrell Granger gave the welcoming address, saying “Graduates, this is your moment to shine, and we are here to celebrate your remarkable journey. Everyone, welcome to an unforgettable day!”

Principal Robert Lopez shared that the day was a celebration of new beginnings. He said, “I want to thank you all for coming together today to celebrate our new graduates. Many refer to ceremonies like this as just a graduation, however, many schools and educational institutions refer to this as a celebration of a commencement. The word, ‘commencement’ means new beginnings and it originates from the French word, ‘comencier.’”

As for the students’ next chapter after high school, he said, “All of our graduates are prepared or finalized in their post-secondary placements, and we’re very proud of this. We did this together, staff and families. As I mentioned before, this is a new beginning you [parents] and your children will be embarking on together. My wish for each student is for you to realize how amazing you are and the potential you possess. Never stop believing in yourself. Never stop pushing to do better and always strive to make a positive difference in the world. Also, be kind because it matters.”

The waterworks began when photos were shown of each student throughout the years—from babies to the present. As one parent, while wiping tears from her eyes, said, “When they are babies, you have no idea what lays ahead. I just don’t mean the challenges, but the rewards. To see my son on stage in his cap and gown means so much. It’s what’s next, I’m worried about.”

Next, was the presentation of award certificates by the school’s staff to the graduates. For Visual Arts, the recipients were Daphne Reynoso and D’Asia Hernandez. Juan Carlos Ramirez and Jabari Moore were awarded for Physical Education. Reynoso also received the Positive Attitude Award. Jabari Moore and Dante Rhodie were honored the Technology Award; Marcquell Williams, the Good Human Award; Rhodie, the Math Award; and Enid Corporan racked up the Vocational Award, English Language Arts Award and Positive Attitude Award.

Vice Principal Granger then introduced commencement speaker, Joe Featherston, who she described as an inclusivity champion. “Formerly the assistant principal of Channel View School for Research, Mr. Featherston’s dedication to fostering a spirit of inclusion extended far beyond the walls of his school,” she said. “During his time as a physical education teacher at Benjamin Cardozo High School, the Cross Island YMCA sought someone capable of training their Special Olympic athletes, and without hesitation, they recognized Mr. Featherston as the perfect candidate. For 30 years and counting, he’s poured his heart soul into nurturing and empowering these incredible Rockaway Special Olympics (RSO) athletes, leaving an unforgettable mark on their lives. Today we are proudly privileged to have Mr. Featherston embrace this momentous occasion as our guest speaker.”

Featherston delivered an emotionally charged speech, which he said came from the heart. He opened with a quote by Mother Theresa: “Spread love everywhere you go. Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier. There are no great things, only small things with great love. But these small things done with great love become the source of great joy.”

Featherston said, “We celebrate love, and we celebrate joy because anybody who deals with wonderful young people such as these seven graduates, knows the love and joy the special needs populace gives.

“And over the course of the past 30 years with RSO, from my interactions with the parents and the young athletes, I came to see love, caring and affection. We know that these special individuals are not jealous or mean, they show us affection, and return the love we give to them. And like the staff and parents of this school, I too feel the pride and love when a child looks at you with such admiration and appreciation.”

He then imparted a note of advice to the parents. “You no longer are going to have the support of this school. You can always come back and reach out to them if you need advice. However, the road ahead is another challenge. You are going to have to work even harder as your child’s advocate,” he said.

Featherston provided a card for each student enclosed with a gift and a critical list of resources for the parents. “For our seven graduates, in each card, there are two Lucky 7 scratch-off tickets,” to which the audience laughed.

He continued, “There’s also a referral sheet of resources parents can contact for help. One is Rockaway Beach Autism Families, a local organization that advocates for the autism community, and a great resource if you’re looking for information or direction. Second, The Guild for Exceptional Children, which has a day program. It’s located in Brooklyn, but they do send buses to Rockaway. Also, if the day ever comes when a parent for whatever reason is not able to take care of their child completely anymore or is worried about their future, the Guild has group homes. I have visited many of those homes, and I guarantee you that they offer a wonderful experience. Lastly, I invite everyone to join my Special Olympics program. We meet Monday nights, 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m., at St. Camillus gym on Beach 99th Street. The program offers various sports, dancing, drawing, ping pong, basketball, air hockey and more. We are on hiatus for the summer but will be back open in the fall.”

Featherston ended his speech with a prayer for the students: “I pray that these seven young people, who are graduating today, have peace, love, and joy wherever they go.”

Enid Corporan again took center stage and with her powerful vocals, delivered the song, “Through the Eyes of a Child.”

As the graduates, families and staff congratulated each other, Featherston said, “What a beautiful time, sharing joy and love. I hope everyone carries that message through the next chapter of their lives.”

Rockaway Stuff

Related post

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *