By Gwen Rollings
High school graduation ceremonies normally take place all over the country this time of the year, but there was nothing normal about the graduation for 25 seniors at Lennard High School recently.
Many of these students are the first in their families to graduate from high school. They are part of the transient migrant community who normally attend multiple schools during the year.
Those students who manage to graduate have overcome obstacles deserving of special recognition.
Alejandra Chavez said, “Many people told my parents, ‘Oh, your daughter’s not going to be able to do something because you came from a place where you didn’t receive anything.’ The moment I told my parents that I’m going to graduate because I had all my requirements, they cried.”
One special recognition tradition began 12 years ago. Olga Perez, a certified Spanish teacher and the school district’s migrant advocate at Lennard High School, turned to the SouthShore Chamber of Commerce executive director, Melanie Davis, to help coordinate an event to honor the migrant graduates. That began the yearly Migrant Graduate Banquet.
In past years, Davis and her staff have supplied a photographer to take cap and gown photos of the graduates. Donated shirts, ties and dresses were collected and seniors enjoyed a ‘shopping day’ at the Lennard library to select their own graduation outfits.
COVID-19 turned graduation traditions and ceremonies upside down this year, but the celebration was still firstclass. Davis collaborated with sponsors the Lightning Foundation, the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay, Enterprising Latinas and the SouthShore Chamber of Commerce to hold a ‘drive-thru’ graduation for these 25 students in place of the Migrant Graduate Banquet.
The last stop was a surprise.
According to Davis, “Students were handed gifts, including a laptop. It was thanks to an (anonymous) neighbor’s donation of thousands of dollars. She said she had four vacations planned between January and July, and they all got cancelled and she thought, ‘You know what? I need to put this money to good use.”
“I’m just so in shock by everything that has happened. I’m very thankful for all the teachers that have supported us throughout all these years,” said Marisol Neri-Baxcajay. Her twin sister, Rosal, added, “It means everything because we weren’t able to have the annual Migrant Banquet. I didn’t even think this was possible.”
These graduates have proven that all things are possible…if you believe.