Representatives of Hillsborough County Schools and family members gather around Richard Canales Calles at the LifePath Hospice in Ruskin. From left to right are Lennard High School migrant liaison Olga Perez; Richard’s brother, Julio Steven; Hillsborough County School Board Chair Melissa Snively; Richard’s mother, Veronica; his brother, Oliver; WWE pro wrestler Titus O’Neil; Lennard Principal Denise Savino; and Schools’ Superintendent Addison Davis.

By Karin Davis-Thompson

When Melanie Davis, executive director of the SouthShore Chamber of Commerce, met Richard Canales Calles in 2018, he had just enrolled at Lennard High School after working on farms in Virginia. He was going to be the first person in his family to graduate from high school and he was determined to make it happen—even as he faced the fight of his life.

Richard had just been diagnosed with bone cancer and Davis said he was adamant about staying on target with his school work while beginning treatment.

“The day I met him, he said he wanted to keep up with his school work while undergoing treatment in the hospital because he was going to get his high school diploma no matter what,” she said. “He set his mind to it. He had a vision and goal. He wanted to graduate and then work on airplanes.”

Richard, the oldest of four siblings in his family, fought hard and long. As his treatment continued and he juggled his school work, the cancer spread to his lungs.

As time went on, doctors said it didn’t look good. But even though he didn’t know how much time he had left, he was still determined to get that diploma.

So, officials at Lennard High School, including Olga Perez, the school’s migrant advocate, along with Davis and other members of the chamber of commerce, set out to plan a special graduation ceremony for Richard at his hospice care facility.

Richard was presented with his diploma by School Superintendent Addison Davis, School Board Chair Melissa Snively, WWE Superstar Titus O’Neil and his school principal, Denise Savino. He got to wear his cap and gown for the celebration and they even played the traditional pomp and circumstance for the graduation march.

It was an emotional moment for the senior and he cried as they presented him with the diploma. But then, just a few days later, Richard lost his battle with cancer; he was just 18 years old.

Davis said she wants people to remember that Richard was more than just a young person diagnosed with cancer.

“He was the child of a migrant farm worker. He worked the farms also,” she said. “He loved our country. He loved learning. He was a kind soul.”