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School Program helps graduates mark milestone virtually

By Mike O'Kelly

Image of balloon that says "Go Grad"

The high school Class of 2021 of St. Jude celebrate their big day in a virtual graduation ceremony.

St. Jude high school teacher Mandy Little arrived on the hospital’s campus in May 2020 to vacant classrooms as the COVID-19 pandemic entered its third month.

Little and her St. Jude School Program colleagues were determined to create some semblance of a graduation event for high school seniors receiving treatment at St. Jude. They assembled graduation packets to mail to students. The contents were a shirt, tassel, stole and other traditional commencement items.

This year, St. Jude School Program by Chili’s staff members were even more determined to ensure that COVID-19 restrictions did not deter the Class of 2021’s celebration.

The 2021 version of St. Jude high school graduation took a step toward normalcy as patients sent in video clips and photos from home for a commencement video. The School Program mailed caps, gowns, tassels, stoles and yard signs to each graduate. The hospital’s Biomedical Communications video team compiled the clips. Each senior also got a class ring. All items were donated by Varsity Brands.

Graduates shared their heartfelt responses to the question, “What does St. Jude mean to you?” in their submissions. Participation in-person graduation had grown significantly each year before the pandemic.

“This event has meant so much to our patients in the past, so it was great to be a little bit semi-normal this year,” said Little, who has coordinated the high school ceremony since 2011.

Laurie Leigh, head of the St. Jude School Program, said milestone events such as graduation are important for children who have had their daily lives interrupted by illness and treatment.

“We want to make sure these students have that normal experience, especially those kids who weren’t able to participate in their own high school graduations,” Leigh said. “It’s important for us to honor them and to honor the fact that they’ve achieved this goal in spite of all that is going on in their lives.” 

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