Friday, July 27, 2012

Moving Stories of Overcoming Challenges

I recently had the opportunity to attend an extraordinary graduation ceremony at the New York Institute for Special Education, where I am privileged to be a member of the Board of Directors. The Institute, originally founded in 1831 as the New York Institution for the Blind, has expanded its mission to include three distinct programs: the Van Cleve Program, for children up to age 13 who have emotional or learning difficulties; the Readiness Program, for preschoolers who are developmentally delayed; as well as the Schermerhorn Program for students from ages 5-21 who are blind or visually disabled.

Dr. Yellin and Dr. Bernadette Kappen, Executive Director of NYISE congratulate a graduate.
Together with the students, families, and staff gathered to celebrate students moving on to the next step in their education, I got to hear an inspiring speech from Felix Castro, valedictorian of the Schermerhorn Program. Felix, who has been blind since birth, took public transportation to school each day. Felix attended the New York Institute from age five, and is looking forward to using the skills he learned there to help him succeed in his college studies at St. Thomas Aquinas College in Rockland County in the fall. You can read more about Felix and his achievements in a story from the New York Daily News.

The valedictorian of the Van Cleve Program, for children who have emotional or learning difficulties, was Deonjay Yelverton, age 13. DJ told the assembled guests:

 " I never thought I would have the honor of speaking to you today and representing my graduating class, but here I am thanks to everyone’s hard work. I used to attend Northside Center from the age of 6 to 9. Although I did my work, my behavior usually kept me out of class and into the counselor’s office. I used to curse, yell, and disrespect students and staff. Since my mom did not feel that the school could handle my behavior, she decided to look elsewhere.

At the age of 9, I came to the Van Cleve program at the New York Institute. I thought it was a place that could help me with all my subjects and behavior, and the icing on the cake was when I found out there was a basketball team. I felt comfortable and started to make friends.

I’m a day student on level 5 which is the highest level you can earn based on your behavior. I had to work very hard to achieve this goal. Even though I had this level 4 times in the past and lost it, I managed to remain on it this whole school year. Clap for me!!! I’m proud of myself. I’ve made many friends, Cantrell, Nelson, Earl and many more. Little by little, one step at a time, picking myself up when the old DJ came back, I started to notice I was becoming a better person.

With the help of my mom, [and] my coaches, ... I began to mature into the young man that you see today... I know it was real tough at times, but thanks everyone for never giving up on me. I’ve been on level 5 this whole year. My academics and behavior have greatly improved too. Other wonderful things also happened to me this year. I was the captain of the Big Stars basketball team and guided them to an 11-2 record. Way to go guys!!! I received the MVP award. I was even a tutor for the younger ones. While at the New York Institute, I’ve learned that to get respect, you have to respect others. I’ve learned that good things come to those who do well, and I’ve learned that if you try hard enough you can succeed.

After I graduate, my new school will be Greenburgh Academy in Yonkers. There, I will strive to continue to work hard in my academics and be a force on the basketball team.

To my fellow Van Cleve graduates, I hope we stay in touch and that you stay strong and accomplish everything you set your mind to. Ms. Nora used to say, "I can lead a horse to water, but I can’t force it to drink." Stay thirsty my friends and become the best person you can be." 

There are terrific photos of all of the graduates and their families on a special page on the New York Institute's website. It was truly inspiring to hear from the students at the New York Institute and I look forward to attending their graduation ceremonies for many years to come.   

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