Ckahlysia Walker and her grandmother a year after Walker promised to graduate.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Ckahlysia Walker's grandmother was pretty much destined to fail.
It was some 60 years ago in South Carolina when she found out she was pregnant in an environment rigged against her. She hadn't finished high school. She left that behind and moved to New Jersey, started her family there, and ultimately got a job she could work at for the next 30 years to support her family.
Last year, Ckahlysia hadn't completed high school either but she didn't face the same situation as her grandmother. She listened to her grandmother's stories and wisdom and Walker made a promise to her grandmother that she'd graduate.
On Monday. Walker stood on the stage at Crosby Elementary School receiving her high school equivalency from the William Stickney Pittsfield Adult Learning Center. She did it.
"She has motivated me and inspired me to finish my education. In fact, I promised her a year ago that she'd see her youngest child graduate. Surprise," Walker said.
Walker is one of 38 to receive either adult diplomas or high school equivalency certificates. While none of them followed the traditional educational route, and often circumstances prevented that, none of them gave up.
"Your journey was going to be a little longer and a little slower but you kept going," School Committee Chairwoman Katherine Yon said.
"You teach us not to give up. You teach us that achieving our goals is never impossible. You teach us that the journey may not be what we thought it was going to be but we can still get where we want to go."
Learning Center Director Paul Gage said the biggest lesson the graduates learned was hope. He said the students learned that "hope is a choice" and that they know they create more in the future.
"As you embark on the next steps of your life you look forward to what is to become of it. And I know that some of our students when you entered the program, some of you were in despair. This was the last chance. The only chance you had to get your life right. Now you leave here tonight with high hopes because you realize that hope is a choice. Even in times of great despair, you can overcome that by simply moving forward," Gage said.
Walker said she had her own challenges in life, just as all of the others in her class. But, they all stood together on Monday with one thing in common -- they committed to changing their lives. She said so many people attempt to change but give up when things get too much and they scramble back to their comfort zones.
"We must keep moving and keep pushing forward to our goals and what will be a wonderful future. Change is important, necessary, and alters the course of our entire lives," Walker said.
Roberta McCulloch-Dews, representing Mayor Linda Tyer, said it is the challenges that scare you that are the worthiest to pursue. She reflected on John F. Kennedy and the space race. She said sending a man to the moon was a bold goal that took a lot of support, a lot of effort, and a lot of will. It seemed impossible at the time but eventually, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped on the moon.
She encouraged the students to have a vision because "visions allow pathways of success to happen," just as Kennedy had his vision. She encouraged the graduates to take a "vision that scares you" and the pursue it without giving up."
"You dared to say yes. You dared to say yes to having a vision. You dared to say yes to sacrificing your time. You dared to say yes to believing in yourself and knowing that you could do it," McCulloch-Dews said.
The graduation was the first year with the William Stickney name. Stickney was the founder of the program who died in 2012. In September, the program will officially be renamed and dedicated to him.
Superintendent Jason McCandless, however, is suggesting another name change already. He'd like to replace "adult" in Adult Learning Center with "grown-up." He said adult is a term symbolizing the number of years a person has been alive and, by law, that makes them responsible for their actions, allows them to watch R-rated movies, and join the military. But, a grown-up is significantly more than that, he said.
Director Paul Gage said the biggest lesson for the students is that of hope.
"Grown-up, on the other hand, is a life term. A grown-up looks at themselves first when things don't go their way. A grown-up knows there is great strength in looking for help and taking help when it is offered. A grown-up takes responsibility for his or her actions and says I'm sorry when it is called for. A grown-up knows when a mistake is made, the blame doesn't matter but starting to fix the mistake does matter. A grown-up takes care of themselves and takes care of their families. When they are able, they take care of their neighbors too. A grown-up takes care of their own business and they do what needs to be done," McCandless said.
"You graduates know as well as I do that simply being an adult in age does not make you a grown up. Some people are in their 50s or 60s or 70s and are still working on being a grown up. On the other hand, we probably all know children who even at 8, 9, or 10 are more grown up than some adults will ever be. Not all grown-ups are adults and not all adults are grown-ups. You graduates, today, are grown-ups."
Those 38 took care of their business, according to McCandless, just as alumna Reina Antunez did. Antunez didn't fit in at high school when she was a teen. She didn't attend much, fell behind on her work, and constantly felt like she didn't belong. At age 16, she dropped out, got emancipated, and moved in with her boyfriend. It wasn't long before she realized she wanted to continue with school.
She went to the Adult Learning Center and started the programs. A year later, she got pregnant. But, the staff at the center wouldn't let her down. They got her into the right programs and helped her get her diploma.
"This atmosphere of support and respect really inspired me to continue. I became a teen mom and the ALC staff made sure I was connected with what was then the teen parent program and continued to support me in my studies while other programs helped me learn the skills in my new goal as a mother. A month before my daughter was born, I graduated with my diploma," Antunez said.
Since then she went to Berkshire Community College for her associate degree in human services. She got a bachelor's degree from Elms College. And soon she will have her master's degree.
The ceremony also featured Rafi Oso, a current student, singing "Win" by Brian McKnight. Staff presented the awards and scholarships. Yon handed out the diplomas.
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