The 23 youth graduating at Rogue Valley Youth Correctional Facility’s New Bridge High School on June 20 went through many ups and downs on their way to their high school diplomas or GEDs.
But on that evening — in front of about 100 teachers, OYA staff, mothers, fathers, siblings, volunteers and other supporters — they seemed just like any other graduates, their gowns freshly pressed, their smiles big, and their spirits high.
Then they told their stories, and their journeys came into sharper focus.
Like Justice Y., who nervously shook out his hands and breathed a big sigh before delivering a speech at the podium. He had served a little over two years of his six-year, three-month sentence, and a special person was in the audience to cheer him on as he earned his diploma.
“I have a daughter. She is three years old,” he said. “When I say it, I mean it: She’s truly my everything and I love her. Before coming here, I wasn’t really being an active participant in her life. I was always high and I was lost. I thought I didn’t care, but in reality, I did. I want to show her that wherever life takes you, you can succeed.”
Justice thanked the teachers and OYA staff at Rogue Valley for sticking with him, inspiring him to do better, and supporting him along the way. Without them, he said, “I’d probably be overdosed in a crack house or under a bridge somewhere.”
All three students who spoke at graduation thanked teachers, staff, or their families for helping them reach graduation. In the hours leading up to the event, it was clear just how important Rogue Valley and New Bridge High School had become to many of the youth living there.
“I’ve been here for slightly over four years. Since we got Ms. E (Eccleston), our principal, we have gotten the barista program, welding, gardening, things like college,” Mulu C. said after demonstrating how to use the school’s new virtual welder. “She’s so invested in our success. She’s like, ‘If this is possible, I will go as far as it takes to bring this opportunity to these guys.’”
Before the external guests arrived, Rogue Valley held an assembly for all the youth at the facility. Teachers and OYA staff handed out numerous awards, some for academic pursuits like attending college, others for personal growth like making big improvements in their treatment of others.
Some of the award-winners were much closer to the beginning of their rehabilitation than the graduates who would be honored that evening.
But seeing the pride on their faces as staff recognized their successes — even the small ones — made it easy to imagine that sometime soon, many of them would be trading their award certificates for diplomas.