By Kerry Goff
In the 17th year of high school graduations at St. Jude, St. Jude Imagine Academy by Chili’s honored this year’s graduates during the annual high school commencement.
Through a virtual video celebration, President and CEO James R. Downing, MD; Alli Leslie, school program head; Mandy Little, kindergarten through 12th grade teacher; and other coordinators and high school teachers, offered congratulations and praise to the graduating class.
“Congratulations on your incredible achievement of becoming a high school graduate,” Downing said. “As you move forward to the next chapter of your life, remember the qualities that brought you to this moment will serve you in the years to come. Through this journey, you have shown resilience, curiosity, hard work and determination. What you have learned inside and outside the classroom will continue to shape the person you are.”
Downing also recognized the graduates’ families and praised caregivers for their constant source of strength and inspiration. “Your unwavering dedication has played a critical role in their achievement. This is your celebration, too,” he said.
To the students, Downing offered words of encouragement and hope. “Know that you carry the spirit of St. Jude and the love and support of everyone who helped you to this moment. We are all so proud of you, and we cannot wait to see all that you will accomplish.”
In her speech, Leslie stressed how important it is for everyone to acknowledge the tremendous support system that is behind each graduate. “We couldn’t do this without you, and we know that it is not easy to continue to encourage students to read and study at home, in housing and bedside in the hospital,” Leslie said.
“It’s truly remarkable to achieve this milestone while undergoing treatment,” Little said. “We are so honored to have had the privilege to work with you during your high school career. And helping you achieve your goal of graduating with your peers”
Graduates also shared their thoughts in their video recordings and written testimonials.
“St. Jude was a light in a dark tunnel during my treatment,” said graduate Aidan Corbett, who will attend Oklahoma State University to study mechanical engineering. “They were always there to provide anything that I or my family needed. I appreciate all that the doctors and nurses did to help me beat leukemia. Especially the nurses—they always made the best of treatments and hospital stays and put up with my antics.”
“To me, St. Jude means hope,” said graduate Elena Johnson, who will attend Iowa State University to study kinesiology, in hopes of becoming an interventional radiologist.
Graduate Jamari Gladney, who will attend Coahoma Community College as a business major, thanked his doctors, nurses and teachers for their role in his success. “I would like to give a special thank you to Dr. Vinitsky and all the nurses in the Brain Tumor Clinic for everything they’ve done since I started going to St. Jude at the age of 15,” he said. “I would also like to thank my St. Jude teacher, Mrs. Byford. You helped me push through my sophomore year even though I wasn’t always feeling my best. I am forever thankful and grateful for all of my St. Jude family.”
During their recorded speeches, the graduates were excited for their futures and expressed their gratefulness for the opportunity to move on to the next stage of their lives. In one moment, graduate Kooper Rooks, who will attend the University of Montevallo to major in music, thoughtfully reflected about his experience at St. Jude. “One day I hope to give back even a little bit of what was given to me,” said Rooks, who aspires to become a music therapist.
Sarah Donaire, ESL teacher, explained that she loves working with students to build a sense of community and appreciates how the teachers at St. Jude nurture each student’s sense of adventure and collaboration. Elizabeth Wilson, Explore librarian, said one of her favorite moments this year was helping students create a new club where they could connect over a shared interest in Dungeons and Dragons.
“I love having the time to work with students individually and adapt to their ever-changing needs,” said Marcie Davis, teacher for the visually impaired. “I love that we can share the resources they need and help nurture their excitement to learn.”
Along with a diploma, each graduate received a St. Jude class ring, hats, tassels and other gifts to celebrate their achievement.