A GROUP OF PARENTS WANTED TO FIND A WAY TO CELEBRATE HIGH SCHOOL SENIORS WHOSE FINAL YEAR WAS CUT SHORT. AN ENTIRE COMMUNITY STEPPED IN TO HELP.
BY CLAIRE DELANO
Dancing at prom. Pulling off a senior prank. Finally walking across the stage in a cap and gown – these are the moments that become lasting memories for most high schoolers. But this year, of course, was different. With stay-at-home orders in place, the class of 2020 spent the last months of school attending class online and self-isolating. But our community wasn’t about to let graduation pass without giving seniors the celebration they deserve.
Inspired by Adopt a Senior movements that have sprouted up across the country, a few parents started Chatham County’s own Adopt a High School Senior program. Robyn Allgood, owner of Robyn’s Nest Creative Learning Center Inc., and Heather Johnson, owner of Chatham Business Services and an editor-at-large for Chatham Magazine, wanted to find ways to commemorate the hard work and accomplishments of local students. “When [Heather] asked [me to help], it was a no-brainer,” Robyn says. “Anything for kids! They are our future!”
Other high schooler parents Charity Ross, Jennifer Davis, Kathleen Riveland, Sherri Stubbs and Todd and Laura Horton also joined to help make the idea a reality. Organizers set up a Facebook group to connect graduates with “adopters” who would send their adopted students letters and gifts. The group has nearly 1,400 members, and Robyn estimates that around 1,300 students across the county have participated.
Randi Markowitz, a friend of Robyn’s and owner of Belle Fleur Design, created signs that families could order to honor their graduates. “My heart broke for them not being able to celebrate in person,” Randi says. She crafted multiple versions so students could choose a design based on their high school colors. “The most rewarding part about this is seeing all of the signs lining East Street and hearing how happy the parents and students were to see them,” she says. “It’s an unprecedented situation, and I am proud of Chatham County for coming together to make this happen.”
COPING WITH LOSS
The coronavirus pandemic produced a unique set of challenges for every student. For some, the greatest struggles are practical. Dennis Sibrian, a graduate of Northwood High School, is a first-generation college student who is headed to Central Carolina Community College in the fall before transferring to North Carolina State University to study bioengineering. “At school, I had a lot of people to help me with my applications and my financial aid,” he says, noting that it’s hard to find resources to assist him from home.
For all these seniors, there is an emotional toll from these lost few months. Aaron Ross, Charity’s son who is also a Northwood grad, is disappointed that he was unable to complete his athletics’ seasons. “I struggle the most with not being able to finish my senior year in baseball and track,” Aaron says. “I try to stay busy running, shooting, lifting weights and fishing so that I don’t think about it.” Seth Moore, a graduate of Jordan-Matthews High School, can relate, especially since he’s played with many of his baseball teammates since kindergarten. “I would have loved the chance to make it to the playoffs with these guys,” he says, but notes that, more than anything, it’s the premature goodbyes to friends that hurt most. “I have missed out on spending time with friends who I may never have the opportunity to spend time with again,” he says.
Brianna Brewer of Chatham Central High School looks forward to attending CCCC in the fall before pursuing nursing at UNC Charlotte in the spring, but she, too, finds it hard to cope with the milestones she’s missed. “I’ve struggled most with missing out on some of the senior year experiences, [like] prom and walking across the stage at graduation and being able to attend the Project Graduation event,” Brianna says. Northwood graduate Thaily Alvarez, who plans to study aviation at Elizabeth City State University, also feels this sense of loss. “So many memories missed,” she says. “We don’t have life guaranteed, and we don’t know what’s going to happen.”
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
As much as this unanticipated close to their high school years stings, the Adopt a High School Senior program has done a lot to help Chatham students feel special. For Northwood graduate Angel Shufford, the senior signs have been particularly meaningful. When Angel had her picture taken for her sign, she chose to proudly display a photograph of her grandfather, John Cross, who recently passed. “I’m so happy that I’m graduating, and my grandfather would be so proud of me because I know he is watching over me,” she says. Brianna also loved her sign, saying, “the sign my adopter, Latoya Williams, had made for me … so far has meant the most to me.” Her mother, Mandolyn Brewer, added that “[Brianna] said it was so pretty that she didn’t want it displayed outside in the yard because she did not want it to get messed up in the wind or rain!”
For Aaron and his adopter, Rikki Deshaies, the circumstances have given them an unexpected chance to reconnect. Rikki, currently an English as a second language teacher at Virginia Cross Elementary School, taught Aaron when he was in eighth grade at Horton Middle School. Like many adopters, she became aware of the program through Facebook, and Aaron’s graduation pictures caught her eye. “I remembered how kind he was when I taught him and wanted to help him celebrate this big occasion since he would not have a graduation ceremony this year,” she says. With suggestions from Charity on Aaron’s interests and likes, she put together a package of gifts, treats and college supplies.
Adopt a High School Senior has also given Seth an opportunity to strengthen his friendship with his adopters, Mitch and Cindy Gurley and their son, Micah Gurley, another grad who attended Chatham Central. “I played baseball with Micah when I was younger, and the Gurleys have always meant a lot to me and my family,” he says. “They surprised me with all of my favorite things.”
Parents of these seniors feel this group’s impact as well. Seth’s mom, Miranda Gunter Moore, appreciates that others “care about all the things these kids are missing out on,” she says. “While it may seem trivial to some, the memories made in high school, especially your senior year, are memories that stay with you for a lifetime. … Missing those moments with friends is what I hate the most for Seth.” Mandolyn agrees: “This program showed my daughter that there are many people who have been saddened that [seniors] are unable to experience those milestones but are so very proud of what they have accomplished!”
‘BRING A LITTLE JOY’
Many feel that this group has left a mark on the community as a whole, beyond high school seniors and their families. Todd noticed the effect it’s had while placing senior signs along U.S. 64 Business in Pittsboro. “People were stopping, waving and blowing their horns, pulling over to the side and taking pictures,” he says. His daughter, Elizabeth, is a Northwood graduate headed to UNC Wilmington in the fall. He’s enjoyed seeing others who are so supportive and thinks the movement has raised everyone’s spirits “It’s actually benefiting not only the graduates, but also the people who are helping, because … it’s drawing people closer together.”
Miranda was inspired to show support for Chatham students the same way the Gurleys gave to her son. “We sent out flower arrangements to some of the girls on the day of their prom to bring a little joy to what should have been one of the biggest days of their lives,” she says. “Planning surprises for other seniors has really brought a lot of joy to this time at home and given us something to concentrate on other than the virus.”
Beth Culberson, whose son, Grayson, is graduating from Chatham Central and heading to CCCC, also sees how the group fostered community even among strangers. Her friend, Heidi Brown, was one of her son’s adopters. After adopting Grayson, Beth says, Heidi “adopted two or three other kids she didn’t even know. … She bought them the T-shirts and the signs for their yard, just wanting them to know that they matter.”
This initiative means many things to the people in our towns. It’s strengthened old friendships and forged new ones and inspired kindness and connection even when people feel so far apart. Most importantly, it has shown Chatham’s high school seniors that their achievements are worthy of celebration. “The small gifts I have been given brightened my day during a time when a lot of things have seemed so bleak,” Brianna says. “My adopters showed me that although this virus took a lot of the things I worked so hard for over the years, that there are still so many people who are here for us and are proud of us and our accomplishments.”