June 26, 2020
Blake Rawson, a resident at Lufkin State Supported Living Center, is one of 29 SSLC residents who graduated high school this spring. With the COVID-19 pandemic preventing traditional graduation ceremonies, each SSLC found a way to celebrate their graduates.

As high schools across the state had unconventional commencement ceremonies for their graduating seniors during the COVID-19 pandemic, 29 graduates at Texas’ state supported living centers and state hospitals also celebrated in nontraditional fashion.

Every year, Mexia State Supported Living Center hosts a small reception for residents who are graduating from high school. This year, Mexia continued its tradition but added some special touches. As the seniors rode a bus to the ceremony — sitting at a distance from each other — they watched through open windows as staff lined the road and cheered for them.

The Mexia SSLC fire brigade led the bus to the ceremony, where Director Melinda Gentry talked about each of the graduates while wearing a mask and handed them their diplomas.

“I am so truly proud of the nine graduates this year,” Gentry said. “They have each overcome many obstacles and achieved more than they thought possible. It has been an honor watching them grow into young adults and working their way to becoming men they can each be proud of.”

Staff at Abilene SSLC made personalized videos for each graduate. Though families could not attend the ceremony, staff worked diligently to make graduation an event to remember.

After Gentry’s remarks, the graduates turned their tassels to mark the end of their high school experience and the beginning of the next chapter.

Lufkin SSLC gave theirs graduates a parade.

“The celebration was heartfelt, and I loved getting to be a part of this special day,” said Lynn Hopper, volunteer services coordinator. “Many Lufkin SSLC employees and the volunteer services council contributed needed funds and supplies so that each of the nine graduates would get to feel the significance of their accomplishment.”

Normally the graduates would walk across a stage to get their diploma while their loved ones watched from the audience. This year, though, they were given a different kind of celebration.

With visitors not allowed on campus, each facility had their own photographer taking photos and videos that will be sent to the graduates’ loved ones.

“Now that I am graduated, I hope to go to college and maybe move to a group home. I am excited about my future,” said Blake Rawson, a graduating senior at Lufkin SSLC.

Blake was one of nine graduates celebrated at the parade that wound throughout the campus. Each senior was provided an individually decorated golf cart to ride in or walk behind while waving to the cheering staff.

“We had confetti, bubble wands, posters and a personalized gift for each senior,” Hopper said.

Outdoor seating for staff was spaced out appropriately, and each graduate was given a fun certificate such as “most likely to be a comedian” or “most likely to be a train conductor” because their diplomas were not yet ready.

Lufkin SSLC Chaplain Gregory Freijo said a prayer for the graduates and then each released a balloon to signify that even during these hard times, there is still love.

Some of the graduating seniors received yard signs for the colleges they will attend so that they could display them proudly.

Abilene SSLC held a smaller but significant celebration.

“I am so proud of the guys and all their hard work,” said Shae Butts, director of community relations at Abilene.

Abilene had two graduating seniors, and the staff worked to make the ceremony special. Each graduate was shown a short video featuring the staff they most often work with congratulating them on all their hard work.