Lone graduate finishes long journey
By MELANIE AVE
© St. Petersburg Times,
TAMPA -- Julio Santos' graduation was like most graduations, complete with pomp and circumstance, sentimental speeches and hopeful talk of the future.
There were balloons, gifts of cologne and large signs: "Congrats Grad." There were hugs. Snapshots. And tears.
Santos, the lone graduate of the Mendez Exceptional Center's East Henry Academy, had come a long, long way and everyone in the room knew it.
But no one knew just how far, and difficult, the journey had been better than the bespectacled graduate himself.
On Tuesday, Santos became the first and only graduate of the center for students with severe emotional disabilities. The school, on the campus of Mental Health Care Inc. on 22nd Street N, was expanded this past year to include middle and high school students. About 100 students attend the school.
"So often these kids are written off," said Bob Sleczkowski, director of children's community services for Mental Health Care. "They drop out. You and I might read about them in an adult criminal situation."
At Mendez, they're taught reading, writing and arithmetic as they would at a Hillsborough County public school, but they also get regular doses of counseling.
It's a last chance, some would say.
But for Santos, it was a beginning.
On Tuesday, the 18-year-old Brooklyn, N.Y., native stood before the 30 well-wishers, friends, family and teachers, wearing a black cap and gown, a gold and purple tassel and a smile that wouldn't fade.
The nervous graduate made his way through a speech, first thanking the guests, the center and his teachers.
"The help they've given . . . is just awesome," he said. "I never pictured this day coming. Never."
His mother and father, Alfonso and Mercedes Santos, sat on the front row as Principal Dreama Bilby handed their son a diploma.
"This is the best thing I've seen," Mrs. Santos said.
Santos, who battles depression, was placed in foster care at age 13. "I was a troublemaker when I was young," he said. "My mom couldn't handle me."
He has been in and out of foster homes and attended several schools, including Gary Adult Center and Leto High School. He has struggled with bursts of anger and been arrested for battery.
But for the past year, he has taken a two-hour bus ride daily to come to Mendez from the assisted living center where he lives.
"If you want to make it in the world, you've got to keep on going," he said.
"Julio has had a lot of trials and difficulties, but he always came back," said Elora Spoto, an exceptional student education specialist. "He wanted that diploma."
To teacher JoAnn Dobbs, Santos' graduation was as meaningful as that of her youngest daughter.
"The rewards are far greater than any salary boost could be," said Dobbs, who read a poem called Your Life Holds Unlimited Potential during the ceremony. "He hung in there. He did it. It's so rewarding."
Santos is leaving the school where he was supported and reassured. But neither he nor his teachers are worried.
He will start taking computer classes at Erwin Technical Center on Thursday. One day he wants to be a computer programmer. He also wants to be respected.
When asked what the future holds, Santos said without hesitation, "I see me working in a big office in a couple of years, making lots of money."
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