There was not a dry eye in the house on graduation day at the Hillsides Education Center (HEC). The graduates, including two of our long-time residents, proudly held their diplomas and shared their stories of how they got to this milestone in spite of the challenges they confront.
We heard from one graduate, Megan, who thanked her grandmother for taking in her family when they needed a home. “The world is a cold place, and you shielded me from that,” she said. She also thanked vocational education teacher Robert Bazzo for being a positive male role model in her life after her father died, and classroom teacher Gabriel Villasenor for making her feel confident and smart. “He gave me reasons to graduate and go on with my life,” she said. “He was a friend to guide me through the dark woods.”
Another student spoke about her thoughts of suicide and how at HEC she had learned to embrace life. “I am now happy, brave, and ambitious,” she said. She gave a special thank you to teaching assistant Mary Marquez, saying, “Thank you for teaching me to love myself…. Thank you for looking at my face every day and telling me I can do it.”
Other students recounted their struggles with school work, mental illness, and the death of a loved one. Perhaps one young woman summed up the healing experience of HEC best when she said, “Hillsides helped me spread my wings…. Thank you for helping me become someone pretty great.”
For many, a high school diploma is no more than a rite of passage, a predictable achievement on their path to adulthood. Not so for the HEC graduates. Learning challenges, instability, phobias, and traumas are elements of their lives that some would consider insurmountable obstacles. Basic things like staying safe and in good spirits and relatively engaged with family and peers were more likely the reasonable expectation for these high school seniors. However, they have exceeded their own expectations, and in the process, have proven to themselves and everyone else that they will not be defined by a diagnosis but rather by their hopes and dreams.
What they shared as they celebrated their graduation was how their hopes and dreams were embraced by family, friends and the HEC staff. Together they came to this moment, and together with those that love and care for them, they proceed into the future. No doubt, challenges will inevitably be part of the next step to adulthood. Hopefully they will address these challenges confident in themselves and reassured by a community committed to their success.
Their stories were inspirational, affirming for us as an organization that the impact on their lives is long-lasting and life-changing. In addition, two students performed during the ceremony, proving that challenges are no barrier to musical talent.
To all this who helped make this moment possible, family, friends, volunteers, and staff, thank you. Thank you also to the volunteer group Las Candelas, who functions as the PTA of the school, and who provided the students with generous gift cards to Target during the ceremony. However, to the graduates, I want to give a special thank you for allowing all of us to be part of your lives at this juncture. Congratulations!
For more photos of the HEC graduation, please visit our Facebook page.