The graduates gathered in a room where they’d been studying all year. They fixed their hair and checked their caps and gowns in the mirror. Their graduation ceremony was about to begin, and they wanted to look their best.
It was early December, and these seven youth were part of a graduating class of 13 at the Next Generation Center. About two dozen people joined the ceremony in person to support the graduates. Others attended virtually over Zoom. No matter where they were, all the youth were celebrating a milestone in their educational careers: earning a high school equivalency diploma.
Many of the youth who come through the Next Generation Center have grown up in foster care or have had interactions with the criminal justice system. And many of them shared the stories of the obstacles they’d overcome on their path toward graduation. The speakers at the ceremony reminded them to reflect on the power of their perseverance.
“Think about all the times you couldn’t make it,” Children’s Aid Vice President Georgia Boothe told them. “Think about all the times you didn’t want to get out of bed. You’re here because you didn’t give up. You put one foot in front of the other, and it got you here. You took your tests one at a time, and you passed them, and look at you here today.”
The high school equivalency program has been a staple of the Next Generation Center for years. Graduates have gone on to attend college and trade schools, and others have moved right into the workforce with their diploma in hand.
The program is led by Angel Romero, who works to condense four years’ worth of material into a short period of time. He’s assisted by Frank DeSimone, a volunteer who was recently profiled by The New York Times for his efforts at NGC.
After a keynote address from Brenda Triplett, Children’s Aid’s director of educational achievement and partnerships, NGC Director Dawnette Artwell closed the ceremony. “No matter how hard things get – no matter the trial or tribulation – know that you have value,” she told the students. “You have worth. No matter what you’ve been through, you made it here today. You’ve accomplished something incredible.”
After the ceremony, the graduates enjoyed some vegan empanadas, which were provided through NGC’s partnership with local restaurants. In addition to supporting youth, NGC has also been providing food to the community at large during the pandemic.
Before the day ended, the youth got together for a few last photos. They stood underneath a banner of gold balloons that spelled out “Congrats!” and collected sparkly gift bags. They smiled and clutched the diplomas that they’d worked so hard to achieve.