In Blog

Chloe Ramirez Testimonial Thursday

With graduation season in full swing, we’d like to take a minute to reflect on our students’ speeches from the past few weeks. Their testimonies shared on graduation day remind us why we do what we do! This week’s graduation speech comes from Simon Youth Judson Learning Academy at Rolling Oaks Mall 2018 graduate, Chloe Ramirez.


2018 Masquerade To Honor Kelly Krauskopf

Celebration of Indiana Fever, Pacers Gaming Executive to Benefit Pacers Foundation, Simon Youth Foundation

INDIANAPOLIS – Kelly Krauskopf, architect of one of the WNBA’s most successful franchises and one of the most respected female leaders in sports, will be the honoree at the 17th Masquerade on Saturday, Oct. 13, at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

The Masquerade, a premier date on Indianapolis’ fall social scene, is the signature fundraising event of Simon Youth Foundation and Pacers Foundation and has raised nearly $12 million for the two organizations since its inception. Both work to ensure youth in need, in Indiana and across the country, are given educational and other opportunities to better their lives. The Masquerade has dazzled attendees over the years with top-tier entertainment and high-profile attendees.

2018 Masquerade, Kelly Krauskopf, President Indiana Fever Basketball/Pacers Gaming at Pacers Sports & Entertainment

Krauskopf is in her 19th season as the Indiana Fever’s top executive, engineering the franchise from its birth in 1999 and directing the club’s business and basketball interests all the way to three WNBA Finals appearances since 2009 and its first league championship in 2012. The club’s chief operating officer through 16 seasons and general manager for 12 seasons since 2006, she was promoted to President in October 2012. She relinquished her general manager’s role to current coach Pokey Chatman following the 2017 season.


In Blog

THANK YOU Simon Youth Academy Teachers!

On the last day of national Teacher Appreciation Week, we want to offer two simple words to all of SYF’s incredible Simon Youth Academy teachers: THANK YOU.

At SYF, all of us see the dedication and passion you have for serving youth who are often overlooked or underestimated, and the way you meet them where they are to get them where they need to be.

Thank you for the early mornings, the late nights, and the hours in between that you put into personalizing your instruction and approach to reaching your students – waiting for that “aha” light bulb moment to flicker in a student’s eyes, indicating they connected with the material and with you.

And thank you for the personal connections you make with students, their families and your communities; the connections that recognize the competing demands and challenges our students face, that inspire them to push forward, and that extend far beyond classroom walls and graduation day.

For all that and more, thank you.

We hope this week provided opportunities for your students, families and administrators to recognize you for all you do each day. You are making a lifelong impact on your students, and SYF is truly grateful for each and every one of you.

With sincere gratitude,

The SYF Team

In Blog

Simon Youth Academy Student Reflects on MLK 50th Anniversary Program

Simon Youth Academy at Circle Centre Mall students Tonesha Williams, Chai Baker and Jason Hernandez at “Still We Reach: Community Reflection & Conversation,” a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., on Wednesday, April 2, 2018 in Indianapolis.

Note from SYF: Today’s post was originally published in The Achiever, Indianapolis Public Schools’ Newsletter. The post was written by Tonesha Williams, a current student at Simon Youth Academy at Circle Centre Mall. Thanks to the generosity of an SYF supporter, Tonesha, Academy classmates Chai Baker and Jason Hernandez, and Academy teacher Ron Hanson attended “Still We Reach: Community Reflection & Conversation,” a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Wednesday, April 4, 2018. SYF hopes you enjoy reading Tonesha’s reflections and seeing some of the photos that she and her classmates took at the event. 

Standing on hallowed ground. Standing on history.

These are the words that ran through my mind during “Still We Reach: Community Reflection & Conversation,” a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., on Wednesday morning.

Standing in Martin Luther King Jr. Park, with the Landmark for Peace Memorial in the background, I attentively listened to speeches from local and national dignitaries, soaking up anything and everything that was being vocalized and taught.

During those amazing speeches, I learned that Robert F. Kennedy was running for president when he was informed that Dr. King had been assassinated on April 4, 1968. Kennedy, who was in Indianapolis promoting his campaign, had a decision to make. Should he make a public announcement about King’s death or not? He chose to go public.

While informing an Indianapolis crowd gathered in the same park as Wednesday’s 50th anniversary celebration about King’s death, Kennedy gave an amazing speech that united Indianapolis and brought peace — instead of destruction — that day.

While news spread throughout the country and our neighboring states were rioting, my dear city, Indianapolis, stayed calm. It is that very peace that we need to practice today.

Before Wednesday’s ceremony began, the sky was dark and gloomy, snow was falling and the wind was whipping. Suddenly, during the event, the sun began to shine, coloring the whole park in vivid colors of green and blue. Even the clouds parted to make way for the rays. And I thought, “This might be them (King and Kennedy), shining down on us in appreciation.”

Gov. Eric Holcomb told the crowd that “Robert (Kennedy) turned a moment of national tragedy to a call for unity.”

U.S. Rep. John Lewis, also a civil rights pioneer who worked and marched with Dr. King, humbly reminded all of us about the man MLK was to him and to everyone.

“I cried,” said Lewis, when he learned about the assassination of Dr. King, his friend. “I lost a friend. I lost a big brother. I lost my leader.”

My experience with the 50th anniversary celebration of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was very inspiring. I left that day with high hopes and aspirations to continue striving forward.

It was a pleasure and a privilege to be there, even during the cold.

I also felt that I had an obligation to be there because this is about my history. It’s about OUR history. It’s about the ultimate sacrifice for change and a great leader — hated by many, but loved by more — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

And although his death happened 50 years ago, it’s still fresh on our minds today.

*Tonesha will attend Harrison College after high school graduation in June. She aspires to be a registered nurse.

Continue scrolling to see more photos!

Photographed by Jason Hernandez, student at Simon Youth Academy at Circle Centre Mall

Photographed by Chai Baker, student at Simon Youth Academy at Circle Centre Mall


Photographed by Chai Baker, student at Simon Youth Academy at Circle Centre Mall

Photographed by Chai Baker, student at Simon Youth Academy at Circle Centre Mall

In Blog

The Best Graduation Gift You Can Give – plus what SYF’s been up to (so far!) in 2018

The first three months of the year were filled with excitement and plans for an ambitious 2018! In January, SYF announced a record-breaking donation from our generous partners at AmeriPark and welcomed three new Board members. Their support couldn’t have come at a better time, as we formalized plans to nearly double the number of Simon Youth Academies by 2023, starting with a new Academy at Sugarloaf Mills (located outside of Atlanta) this fall!

In the midst of celebrating Simon Youth Academy mid-year graduations, we received exciting news that Darla Merrill, Science and STEAM teacher at Simon Youth Coast High School Academy (California), was named teacher of the year by Huntington Beach Union High School District (HBUHSD)! We’ve know what an incredible educator Darla is for years now – she was SYF’s Teacher of the Year in 2010! – but we were thrilled to see her recognized by her district, too. (Read more about Darla’s journey here!)

Meanwhile, students at Simon Youth Clark-Pleasant Academy (Indiana) recently started a food pantry to serve their community, garnering the attention of several local media outlets. The students were able to turn their vision for the food pantry into a reality, thanks to the Greenwood Park Mall team and community leaders who make up their local Community Advocacy Council (CAC).

In the coming months, we look forward to awarding more than $1 million in Simon Youth Scholarships to help students pursue their dreams through education. The scholarship recipients will be announced at Simon malls and at Simon Youth Academy graduations across the country this spring. We invite you to show your support for these students by celebrating graduation at your local Simon Youth Academy!

If you can’t make it to a Simon Youth Academy graduation, we hope you’ll consider making a gift in honor of one of your graduates or a Simon Youth Academy graduate. We know that when students turns their tassels at graduation, they unlock doors that would have otherwise remained closed, uplifting families and communities for generations to come.

With your support, SYF can help more students pursue their dreams through education.

Stay up-to-date on work at SYF by reading SYF’s blog and by following us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn – invite your friends to “like” us too!

In Blog

SYF Educator Transforms Lives – And Gets the Recognition She Deserves!

SYF Note: Today’s post is about Darla Merrill, Lead Teacher at Simon Youth Coast High School Academy (California), and her journey as an educator. Darla was named Simon Youth Foundation’s Teacher of the Year in 2010, and was named her school district’s Teacher of the Year in 2018.

Growing up, Darla Merrill dreamed of doing something bigger than herself and giving back to others. She lived in a small town in the South, where school was the center of the community. She loved to learn and took advantage of all the activities and opportunities her school had to offer.

Inspired by her older sister and encouraged by teachers who saw her ability to help others be the best they could be, Darla became the first member of her family to graduate from college. She embarked on a teaching career that has spawned more than 30 years, with a passion for educating and inspiring youth who faced personal challenges.

“They’re so beautiful inside and out, but sometimes they don’t see it,” Darla said when SYF spoke with her recently. “I try my best to connect with them. There were teachers there for me, and I just want to be there for them.”

In 2003, Darla’s journey as an educator and her desire to do more for students who struggled in traditional classrooms led her to become a co-creator/developer of Simon Youth Coast High School Academy, a partnership between SYF and Huntington Beach Union High School District (HBUHSD). At the time, it was the first and only school in the district to serve students who had been expelled.

Darla seized the opportunity: She made deep connection with her students, built relationships in and out of the classroom, and she implemented physics, Lego Robotics, personalized PE learning opportunities, and annual long Solar Cup program where her students build and race solar-powered boats against other schools across Southern California.

In 2010, SYF recognized Darla for her role and life’s work by naming her SYF’s Teacher of the Year. Earlier this year, HBUHSD caught up to what we’ve known and bestowed the same honor, naming her Teacher of the Year – out of 702 teachers in the district.

“I feel honored and humbled to represent our district, SYF and something that’s bigger than me: alternative education educators and programs,” Darla told SYF of receiving the award. “Many times you lose out on opportunities to be recognized as a colleague who does the same thing next door. I never thought this would be an option for me because alternative education teachers aren’t usually recognized outside of alternative venues.”

Today, Simon Youth Coast High School Academy is a school of choice and serves students who want to pursue their education outside of a traditional classroom or school. Its success led HBUHSD to partner with SYF to launch another Academy, the Simon Youth Academy at Valley Vista.

“When we first came over here, people didn’t understand the support from SYF,” she said. “But they see the scholarships and hear the stories. SYF’s voice just empowered other teachers here to see you genuinely care about seeing students make it. I couldn’t have done what I did without your support, and it’s just grown even better over the years.”

Simon Youth Clark-Pleasant Academy Students Start Food Pantry

Photo by: Jacob Tellers, Daily Journal


It’s difficult for any of us to excel in life while facing days of hunger. For students from Simon Youth Clark-Pleasant Academy, seeing friends and family affected by the lack of food inspired an idea: to open a new food pantry that could help reduce the number of people going hungry in their community.

As part of their weekly community service, the students brought their idea to Principal Lesleigh Groce, who embraced their idea and mission with open arms. One of SYF’s continued supporters, Greenwood Park Mall, a Simon-owned property, offered to assist in the mission. The mall donated shelving for storing the food, and invited retailers to participate in a food drive.

With the support of 13 retailers, the mall management team and mall security – who took up a collection to chip in $250 for the food pantry! – students were seen unloading and sorting a truck full of food and toiletries. With a strong foundation and continued support from the SYF Community Advocacy Council at Simon Youth Clark-Pleasant Academy, the students intend to open the pantry later this spring, and will spend their Fridays volunteering in it.

The students aren’t stopping at reducing hunger. No! They’re also working toward running the school’s clothing pantry, Warrior Wardrobe. This program will provide clothes to their fellow students, friends and family.

For SYF, this is just one example of the incredible work SYF Academy students, teachers, principals, and partners are accomplishing with the support of local SYF Community Advocacy Councils. You can learn more by watching or reading the clips below, as local reporters got wind of the students’ project and came out to help spread their message.

Click watch the Fox59 Report.

Click to watch the CBS4Indy Report from WTTW.

Click to read The Daily Journal article.

Donations to the food pantry can be dropped off at Simon Youth Clark-Pleasant Academy, at 129 U.S. 31, New Whiteland, IN. To make a gift to SYF to support this work across the country, click here.

To learn more about launching or serving on an SYF Community Advocacy Council, contact SYF Vice President of Advancement Brandi Young at 

*A special thank you to the retailers at Greenwood Park Mall who participated in the food drive:
Aeropostale, Bath & Body Works, Blondie’s Cookies, BlueMile, Chick-fil-A, Christopher & Banks, Hakky Shoes, JZ Jewels, Maggie Moos, Rackroom Shoes, Tradehome Shoes, Sports Fanatics, and Zumiez

Conversation with Dr. J. Michael Durnil, President and CEO, Simon Youth Foundation

Dr. J. Michael Durnil, President and CEO, Simon Youth Foundation

A national movement has been building all across the country, rooted in a shared commitment to improved educational outcomes for all of our children. Dr. J. Michael Durnil, President and CEO of Simon Youth Foundation, is latest to be profiled by DRG Search for his leadership and dedication to the mission of helping at-risk students obtain a high school diploma and achieve success in their post-secondary education.

During his time at SYF, Dr. Durnil has brought together a wide range of partners – not only families and educators, but also businesses leaders in the community to tell the story of our Simon Youth Academies and success of our Academy students.

Dr. Durnil mobilizes and prepares a national network of talented education leaders and managers to accelerate excellence in education and transform our education system into one that equips students with the skills they need to thrive in college, career and life.

Click here to read more about Dr. Durnil’s approach to his work and how the organization has matured under his leadership.

Simon Youth Foundation Announces Record-Breaking Donation from AmeriPark

Deborah Simon, SYF Chair, with Todd Brosius, President, AmeriPark



















Today, Simon Youth Foundation (SYF) announced a $132,000 donation from AmeriPark, the leader in retail and mixed-use parking management at over 100 retail properties nationwide, representing SYF’s largest single unrestricted corporate donation, outside of Simon Property Group, in its history.

“Simon Youth Foundation’s efforts to help students at risk of dropping out of high school graduate and pursue post-secondary opportunities would not be possible without the generous support of our partners – both inside and outside of Simon,” said Dr. J. Michael Durnil, President and Chief Executive Officer of SYF. “AmeriPark’s longstanding partnership and record-breaking donation reflects its role as a leader in the community, and will enable us to reach even more students in the year ahead.”

AmeriPark’s donation is the result of a unique partnership with SYF, through which it holds an annual holiday valet parking program to raise funds for the Foundation. This initiative began in 2009, and has grown in scope each year since.

“AmeriPark is committed to investing in and giving back to our communities,” said Todd Brosius, President and Chief Executive Officer of AmeriPark. “We know that a strong education will open doors for students and uplift local economies, and we are proud to partner with Simon Youth Foundation to help more students fulfill their dreams.”

Through its annual holiday valet parking initiative, AmeriPark has donated nearly $500,000 to SYF since 2009.

To learn more about partnership opportunities with SYF, please contact Scott Brannon, Associate Director of Advancement, at (317) 263-2256 or


About Simon Youth Foundation

Simon Youth Foundation (SYF) is a national nonprofit committed to helping students who are on the verge of dropping out of high school graduate and pursue post-secondary educational opportunities. SYF works toward this mission by partnering with local public school districts to launch Simon Youth Academies, alternative classroom settings located primarily in Simon Malls, and by providing Simon Youth Scholarships to Academy graduates and students who live near Simon Malls. Since its inception, SYF has maintained a 90 percent graduation rate at its 30 Simon Youth Academies in 12 states, helping nearly 16,000 students earn their high school diplomas, and has awarded nearly $17 million in scholarships. Visit to learn more.

About AmeriPark

AmeriPark is the leader in retail and mixed-use parking, as the premier boutique operator, AmeriPark manages over 100 retail properties nationwide. AmeriPark provides valet services to a multitude of product types including retail facilities and garages, hospitals and medical centers, entertainment complexes and arenas, casinos and gaming facilities, residential buildings, office buildings, airports, shopping centers, hotels, and restaurants.

SYF Announces the Election of J.T. Coopman, Michael Romstad and Stephen Yalof to its Board of Directors

Today, Simon Youth Foundation (SYF) announced the election of three new members to its Board of Directors: J.T. Coopman, Executive Director, Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents; Michael Romstad, Executive Vice President – Management, Simon Property Group; and Stephen Yalof, Chief Executive Officer of Premium Outlets, Simon Property Group.

“We are honored to welcome J.T., Mike and Stephen to Simon Youth Foundation’s Board of Directors,” said Dr. J. Michael Durnil, President and Chief Executive Officer of SYF. “In addition to their professional accomplishments, each is deeply committed to supporting today’s youth and to providing them with opportunities to reach their full potential. We look forward to leveraging their passion and expertise as we pursue ambitious plans for the years ahead.”

As the Executive Director of the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents (IAPSS), Dr. Coopman represents 290 superintendents in Indiana and advocates for public school leadership across the state. Dr. Coopman has been an educator in Indiana for over 40 years, serving as a teacher, coach, principal, assistant superintendent and superintendent, as well as an adjunct professor at Ball State University. He currently serves on the Board of the Butler University College of Education.

Romstad brings more than 20 years of experience at Simon to his role as Executive Vice President – Management for Simon Property Group. During his tenure with Simon, Romstad has served as Senior Vice President of Management – The Mills, as mall manager at many key properties, as the property management point person on 15 mall renovations, and as Regional Vice President of Simon’s Mid-Atlantic region. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Criminal Justice Administration from Central Missouri State University.

Yalof has been the Chief Executive Officer of Premium Outlets at Simon Property Group since July 2014. Previously, he served as Senior Vice President of Real Estate for Ralph Lauren Corporation for 10 years, as well as Senior Director of Real Estate for Gap. He began his career in real estate under the leadership of Arnold Labich at New Plan Realty Trust, before being named Vice President of leasing for its factory outlet business. Yaloff holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration from George Washington University.

Dr. Coopman, Romstad and Yalof join a Board of Directors comprised of dedicated individuals who lend their time, talent and treasure to support SYF’s efforts to measurably impact students, families and communities across the country. Visit to see the full list of Directors.

Simon Youth Foundation Names Lauren B. Rapp as New Communications Director

Simon Youth Foundation (SYF) announced that Lauren B. Rapp has been named Director of Communications. In her role, Rapp will lead strategic communications efforts to elevate the Foundation and its mission to provide educational opportunities and scholarships in communities that are home to Simon Properties and Simon Youth Academies.

“As a former teacher, Lauren understands the critical issues facing today’s students and teachers,” said President and CEO J. Michael Durnil. “We look forward to leveraging her deep experience in the classroom and in the education nonprofit sector to help the Foundation achieve its ambitious goals in the years ahead.”

A Chicagoland native, Rapp most recently served as Manager of Communications and Development for The Chicago Public Education Fund (The Fund), a nonprofit that has raised and invested more than $74 million to improve Chicago’s public schools. She joined The Fund as a Policy and Advocacy Fellow through Leadership for Educational Equity in 2013, with increasing roles and responsibilities over the last five years.

Among her accomplishments, Rapp conceptualized, designed and executed Chicago’s first-ever Principal Appreciation Campaign; built and strengthened The Fund’s digital, social and earned media presence; and helped raise $20 million by stewarding and cultivating investors from corporate, civic and philanthropic backgrounds.

Prior to her work in the nonprofit sector, Rapp was a classroom teacher in traditional, charter and private school settings for five years. She began her career as a Teach For America teacher on Chicago’s South Side, and then taught at The Oaks Academy, a private pre-K-8 school that serves children of diverse racial and socioeconomic backgrounds through three campuses in Indianapolis.

Rapp received her bachelor’s degree in Journalism with a concentration in Public Relations and a minor in Communications and Culture from Indiana University – Bloomington in 2008. She completed the Illinois Teaching Certification Program through her coursework at Dominican University’s Graduate School of Education in 2009. She is married to John T. Rapp, an Analyst for the Knall/Cohen/Pence Group of Stifel. They have one daughter, Elizabeth.

Academy Student Finds Authentic Self and Academic Success

The featured student address this week comes from a member of the 2017 Simon Youth Clark-Pleasant Academy graduating class, Eric Robinson.

Eric’s Graduation Address:

I made an unspoken promise to myself to spend a maximum of two hours on this speech. Please understand that it took a lot to make that happen. The recovering perfectionist inside of me would much rather have spent countless days and nights typing and retyping this speech to absolute perfection.

2017 graduate, Eric Robinson, receives award from Principal Lesleigh Groce

If you would have asked Eric Robinson four months ago where he thought he would be right now, he most definitely would not have said, “at the Clark-Pleasant Academy.” He probably would have said that he thought he would be studying his butt off at a Starbucks and working for those “oh so perfect” semester grades.

I have always been an overachiever. Typically students would take pride in such a descriptor, but my compulsiveness to constantly succeed got in the way of my own personal happiness. At high school, I was that silent studier with a dangerous ambition to succeed. To get the highest grade. To outperform every living, breathing human being in what seemed like my infinite radius. This egocentrism and perfectionism all rooted from one central desire: to gain the respect and praise of others. I know, it sounds selfish. Modern psychology would indicate that those who need others’ respect are compensating for a steady lack of self-respect. Herein lies the issue that brought me to the Academy.

Although I was that seemingly perfect student, president of my choir, even an athlete, I did it all in search of some praise or respect from others that would make me feel better about myself. But the thing is that even when I did receive praise, I only wanted more. It took coming to the Academy to even begin realizing that my self-worth is in no way contingent upon my performance. And also that overachieving is of no value if your motivation is only to earn the respect of others.

In September, when this pulsing need for perfection resulted in a mental breakdown, I realized that what others think or will think or could think about Eric Robinson does not matter. Being the best does not ultimately matter. Being the star athlete /singer/student does not matter.


No amount of success or praise will change my personal happiness if I lack self-acceptance anyway. I can proudly say that the Academy helped me begin to develop self-confidence. I also knew that I had to develop self-respect and have the ability to believe my life philosophy whole-heartedly. Which brings me to my life philosophy: success is not measured by anything other than how well we, as human beings, love and pour into the lives of others. Mother Theresa, St. Francis, Jesus Christ; these individuals experienced success because they set aside personal desires and devoted their lives to helping others. I honestly do not believe success is determined by what rung you make it to on the fiscal ladder, or what Ivy League college you attend. Upon having a mental breakdown and coming to the Academy, I was able to humble myself and start to realize that.

Since being at the Academy, I have finally relinquished what insecurities were keeping me from respecting myself and accepting this philosophy that puts others first.

Simon Youth, this Academy that you so graciously fund has helped me to respect myself, see perfectionism as the enemy, and ultimately live in a way that rejects the concept of personal success defined by a fiscal ladder, academic success and popularity.

Thank you.


My Summer at SYF

On my first day as SYF’s Communications Intern, I did not really know what to expect. I had never worked in a corporate office before, let alone held a real, full time job in the summer, with the exception of nannying and the summer I worked as a camp counselor. I started my first day, excited, nervous and eager to learn. On that first day, my new CEO, who would later become a great mentor and friend, dabbed in the staff meeting, my boss, at the time, filmed a video of us promoting the new SYF Simon VISA Giftcard for a social media post and I spent the rest of my day updating our social media pages and writing sample social media posts. I remember going home and telling my parents that I am exactly where I am supposed to be.

Within the first few weeks, I was given a lot more responsibility than I was expecting, due to some unforeseen circumstances. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise truthfully, as I was able to learn more and do more than I would have otherwise.

Looking back, my favorite memories from this summer have been from SYF’s Tees For Education golf outing and the Founders Celebration at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. After the staff’s preliminary duties were completed, it was great to be able to socialize with my coworkers out of the office, and the guests of the events as well.

My least favorite part of the summer was creating the Q3 Media Board Report and the Q3 Awareness Report. I had never done anything like this before, which resulted in feeling insecure about my abilities to do so. As much as I hated doing it though, it was a great learning experience and I will now be able to create more media reports with ease, should a future employer task me with such.

Throughout the summer, I have learned more about social media and communications than I ever thought I would. In thinking about my future as a journalist, I was sure that I would not need to know how to use Microsoft Excel or know how to create a quarterly media recap for the Board of Directors. This internship has opened my eyes to how naïve I was, to think I was only going to be writing articles and that was all that I needed to know how to do.

The work that SYF does on a daily basis is not easy for me to put into words, because at times it can leave you with overwhelming emotion. I had the privilege to spend some time with the staff and students of the 2017 Simon Youth Academy at Circle Centre Mall graduating class. While these students were close to me in age, the experiences and hardships that some of them faced was unfathomable to me, and that they were still able to come to school with a smile on their face. These students showed me firsthand that no matter how hard life gets, there is always a way for you to come out on the other side.

I am very thankful for colleagues who embraced me with open ears and arms, and who made coming to work everyday fun…not to say that working in and of itself is not fun! I am so thankful for the relationships that I was able to build while at SYF and will continue after my internship is over.

In a small office space, on the second floor of Simon Tower, lives the world of SYF, full of people who were once strangers, but are now, my friends.

In Blog

Academy student transforms challenges into success

2017 graduate and scholarship recipient, Zoe DeSantis, with her mom and Burlington Mall Manager, Matthew Bourassa.


The featured student address this week comes from scholarship winner and member of the 2017 Simon Youth Academy at Burlington graduating class, Zoe DeSantis.

Zoe is the recipient of a four-year scholarship, totaling $32,000. She will attend Mount Ida College, in Newton, MA, with the hopes of earning a degree as a veterinary technician.

Zoe’s Graduation Address:

Good evening family, friends, teachers, our special guests from the Simon Youth Foundation and most importantly, my fellow graduates.  Can you believe it? Four years ago we walked into these halls as nervous, little freshman.  Now, those same four years later, we are leaving the school behind for a whole new crowd of students, most of whom will be just as scared and nervous as we were when we walked into these unknown halls.  It truly has been a long four years. four years filled with drama, hard homework, boring projects and blank essay papers.  It has also been a short four years because of the long filled friendships, fun lasting memories and truly the most amazing and interesting things that we have learned about here at Burlington High School.

I keep having to remind myself that it is not the end, it’s just the beginning of a new chapter in our lives. Some of us are going to college while others are joining the military or starting a family.  We are all here tonight because our stories are not traditional.  For reasons as unique as all of us, we decided to attend the Simon Youth Academy at Burlington.  Many of our stories include difficulties and challenges, but we have finally made it to this important day.

It is those difficulties and challenges that have made us who we are today.  It hasn’t always been easy, but we have made it through.  None of us would be here this evening if we had not put in the effort over the last 12 years of our education.  As many of you know, that effort does not always come easily.  Over the last 12 years, I switched schools districts four times.  It was very difficult for me, especially, to always be known as the ¨new girl¨ and having to make new friends all over again.  At times, it was very challenging to put in the effort to start a new school or to make new friends.  At times, I just wanted to give up, and at times, I know that many of you wanted to give up as well.  We all have many challenges that we face in life, but I want to applaud all of you for never giving up or never throwing in the towel.

In closing, I want to thank my mom for her endless love and support, and more importantly, for dragging me out of bed many mornings.  I wanted to also thank my brother, who is currently serving our country over in Afghanistan, for always believing that no matter what people said.  I can do anything that I put my mind to. I also want to thank my aunts for their endless texts and nagging to get me to school; I now realize it was all done out of love.  Finally, I want to wish my fellow graduates the best of luck in everything that you do in life, and I want to leave you with one of my favorite inspirational quotes from Dr. Seuss:

“You have brains in your head.  You have feet in your shoes.  You can steer yourself any direction you choose.  The more that you read, the more things you will know.  The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”

Congratulations class of 2017!


Former Student Returned to Share Her Advice

The featured student graduation address this week comes from Briana Johnson, a 2016 graduate of Simon Youth Academy at Westminster Mall, who returned to her Alma mater to give an encouraging message to the Academy at Westminster Mall’s 2017 graduating class.

It is a true testament to the work that the Academies do when former students are able to give back and share their wisdom with new graduates.

Since her graduation, Briana has attended Cerritos College to pursue a degree in Nursing.

Briana’s graduation address:

Good evening fellow graduates, Principal Curiel, Mr. Villamor, Trustee Ms. Iverson, Dr. Bryan, Dr. Durnil, honored guests, family and friends. Thank you for being here tonight to honor these graduates, and congratulations to the Class of 2017. You did it, with determination.

Last June, I was sitting here just like all of you graduates. Anxious, with my cap and gown on, wondering what life had in store for me when I finally held that diploma in my hand. The teachers and staff of Simon Youth Coast High School Academy helped me realize that I had more potential than I knew.


In fall 2015, I finished my high school credits. However, I saw an open opportunity to strive to become the most successful person I could be. Shortly after finishing my credits the Coast High School Academy, I enrolled at Cerritos College a few months later. College was challenging and a huge step for me considering I was the first to graduate high school, let alone go to college, in my family. I can now say that I am one step closer to becoming a physician. I can now say I am one step closer to making an impact in our community. Along the way, there have been trials and tribulations, but I’ve managed to always take the good with the bad and I think we have all done that.

I know pursing your careers in times that are troubled is a challenge, but it is also a privilege because it’s moments like these that force us to try harder, to dig deeper, and to discover gifts we never knew we had and to find the greatness that lies within each of us. So don’t ever shy away from that endeavor and don’t stop adding to your body of work. I can promise that you will be the better for that continued effort.

Whether it is your dream to further pursue college or not, just remember: this is another milestone that you have created for yourself.

Since entering college, I’ve managed to learn what it is like to be an adult. There are nights where I just feel like falling asleep after studying for back-to-back finals, or days where I just felt like not going to school at all; I have felt this struggle, and you will too. Hard work will pay off, though. You can ask anyone, like your professors standing up here, dentists, doctors, the architects who helped design this mall, entrepreneurs. You will persevere and strive with excellence along the way!

Just remember, if you ever feel overwhelmed, which we all have at one point, don’t be afraid to seek help, whether it’s from a family member, friends, colleagues, teachers or counselors.

I also want to give a huge thank you to the Simon Youth Foundation, as I was one of the three recipients last year of their generous scholarship. They believed in my potential every step of the way.

So I want to end with this quote, as it has been an inspiration and kept me motivated for some time now.

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. It literally means a journey that will take you a thousand miles away from where you started.”

So, take that first step this evening, with your diploma in your hand, and create endless opportunities for yourself. The future is waiting for you with open arms. I wish you good luck and great success. Thank you all very much.

Navigating High School As an Anxious Teen

This week’s featured graduation address comes from Hailey Warhol, a 2017 graduate of Simon Youth Academy at Northgate Mall.

Hailey is the recipient of a two-year scholarship, valued at $8,000.


She will attend North Seattle Community College in the fall, studying Art, Music and Drama Education.


We wish Hailey all the best in her future endeavors.


Hailey’s Graduation Address:

 My name is Hailey Warhol and I have been asked to share my story with you all today, which is something I don’t usually have a problem with. I mean, if you ask me on any random day, I will gladly recount my entire life story in great detail. But, I’ve found that there’s something about sitting and writing it all down that makes me feel like I have to do it justice and tell it right… so I am going to take a shot at this.

Our struggles do not define us, they are only a part of our narrative. What I will be sharing today is only one chapter of my story.

In the seventh grade, I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, a panic disorder, depression and ADHD. That was one of the best days of my life. After years of telling people that I was hurting someone finally told me “I hear you, I know what’s wrong.” After being diagnosed and thinking back, I have never known a life without anxiety. One of my biggest fears was losing my parents, which made it hard to be away from my mother. I also developed a type of social phobia, where even the thought of school would induce a panic attack.

Halfway through my freshman year at Ingraham, I was withdrawn from all but two classes; the rest I took online. Thinking back, my high school experience before Middle College ended when a teacher I admired asked me what I was going to do when my parents died, which I had just confessed as one of my biggest fears. It was at this point that I fell into darkness. I stopped going to school entirely and shut myself away from the real world. I couldn’t do it any longer. I was tired of pretending that I was okay.

The darkness was a period of my life that lasted two years, where I didn’t leave my house. I lost contact with my friends, I stayed home, I watched TV, sorted little plastic beads and played with my cats. For about two years, that was my life.

I would like to take a moment to thank my mother; the bravest woman I know. Without her I probably would have dropped out of high school. She took on my battles when I could not fight for myself. My mother spent years fighting with schools and the district, searching for accommodations, making sure I was not forgotten. She has never given up. When I felt like people were upset or disappointed in me she’d say “They wouldn’t blame you if you had cancer.” She fought to get me what I needed so that I could succeed. She is the reason I am here today.

I don’t remember much from when I started at Middle College but what I’ve heard is that Courtney spoke with my mother on the phone for almost two hours discovering that MCHS would be my next chapter.

I started in the Home Study Program meeting once a week with a counselor named Geri Parker. We worked on classes at my pace, taking breaks to talk about our favorite shows and shared passions. With the help of Geri and Courtney I discovered that I was good at math, despite it always being my worst subject. Slowly but surely, we increased our time and began venturing out of her back office and into the classrooms.

Now you may ask “What changed? What happened,” and you know what to be honest I don’t know. One day something just clicked. I wanted to be with real people and I wanted a real life. I was done living in my imagination. My desire for friendships, relationships and life was stronger than any of my fears or worries.

That year I made the transition from Home Study to full time Direct Instruction. I joined the Japan and Leadership clubs. I met and got to know amazing people some of whom would turn out to be family. I founded the club Current Events. I represented our school by attending the Rotary Youth Leadership Awards. In the last month of school, I was in charge of the first yearbook the school had in over ten years. This year, I served as President of the Leadership club and head of the Prom Committee.

I often talk about my old life like it was a past one, and in a way it was, because that Hailey, she’s gone. She is a part of me but I am not her. Climbing up from the darkness, I was able to pick up the pieces that I had once loved and put them together into who I am today. I would not be that person if it were not for Middle College High School and the people who love and support it.

Earlier I said I have never known a life without anxiety, but I feel something changing. While I will always struggle with it for the first time in my life, I feel that I am more than my worries.

Congratulations to the class of two thousand and seventeen. We did it!


Be Phenomenal, or Be Forgotten

Ruth Sarai Pumarejo with her mom, Monica, having fun in SYF’s photo booth at graduation.

Our featured student graduation address of the week is  from Ruth Sarai Pumarejo from Simon Youth Peabody Learning Academy at Northshore Mall in Peabody, MA.

She narrates her journey through high school, which ultimately led her to where she is today. We are excited where the next phase of her journey takes us!

Ruth received a four-year scholarship valued at $32,000. She will attend Endicott College in the fall, studying Business.

Ruth’s graduation address:

There is one major difference between average people and achieving people: their perception of and response to failure. Good morning, class of 2017. Before I begin, I would like to welcome my family, friends, teachers and those of you who have travelled a long way to be here today. You are special to me and have played a significant part in my life and in my academic journey. When my alarm clock went off this morning, a smile spread across my face and I thought, “Yes! This is it! Today I am graduating!” It’s funny because I use to think I’d be stuck in high school forever, but to my surprise, these last four years have gone by all too fast. Each year had its own ups and downs, its failures with its successes, the embarrassing moments, the coming of age moments, and the ones that made me, me. The next few minutes will be comprised of highly personal anecdotes I now plan to take full advantage of.

When we were five, our teachers asked us what we wanted to be when we grow up. We answered with things like astronaut, president, or in my case, the Little Mermaid. When we were ten, they asked us again, to which we answered- actress, cowboy, or in my case, a writer. But now that we’ve grown up, our elders want a serious answer. How about this- “who cares and who knows!” This is not the time to make hard and fast decisions. This is the time to make mistakes, travel the world, fall in love and marry. You have the ability to change your mind and change it again because nothing’s permanent. So make as many mistakes as you can so that way someday when they ask us what we want to be we won’t have to guess, we’ll know.

Now to those of my classmates and teachers who have told me that I am the most “positive” person at the school… today I want to take a moment to tell you the part of my story that I oftentimes omit and shy away from when I am talking to friends and those that I meet. Before the PLA, I was an introverted girl who didn’t believe in herself. I was not sure how to live in the moment. And when you worry about tomorrow, it can be very difficult to live in the today. When I began my journey at traditional high school, I quickly realized that the environment was too big, and I simply could not find a place to fit in. Transitioning to high school life was not an easy task for me, and for many. It’s ironic, because the space is so big and people are bustling everywhere, but I still felt lonely.

But if only I could have had a glimpse of what my future was going to look like fast-forwarding 5 years, I then would have never imagined life to be as bright and beautiful as it is today. The life that I live now is unlike anything I envisioned God had stored for me. A future immersed with visiting foreign countries, developing new relationships and embracing the faith I practice today. For a while, my road was very bumpy and I had difficulty seeing when the road would clear up. But like I tell everyone, anything good takes time. And it is no question that one must go through rough patches in order to achieve great things.

Towards the end of my freshman year of high school, a miracle came. I met a tall man with a shiny, bald head who offered me an opportunity to recover the high school credits I needed due to my numerous absences. Of course, I was skeptical. Would I succeed at the PLA? What would happen once I recovered my classes? Would they send me back to the high school? Sure, I had my doubts, but don’t we all? The good thing is, I was able to connect with this human being right away because I was able to understand that he only wants the best for all of his students. After thinking about his offer, I consulted with my mom and told her that I wanted to give it a try. I wanted to see what would happen if I gave my best to succeed in school because I wanted to be someone one day. So like that, I waved goodbye to yesterday. And this here was the first lesson I learned and one I hope you’ll take home with you today. The lesson is that you create your own opportunities.

I’m amazed at the wonderful things that can happen when you have enough courage to lose sight of the shore. You can discover new oceans, and like the butterfly effect, my whole life changed because of that one decision. You know what they say about change- change yourself, and the world changes. After this, I found myself succeeding in many areas. My grades skyrocketed, I made new friends; I even started my own business. Essentially, I became the young woman that I had originally aspired so hard to be and gratefully am today.

At this moment, I will share my experience of what it was really like to enroll at the Peabody Learning Academy. From the first few days, I quickly learned that at PLA, we recognize that everyone learns differently. Some people learn best when there is a teacher giving a lecture at the front of the classroom, others prefer taking online courses or listening to audios. What fascinates me the most is that all associates at PLA respect each other and understand that everyone is different and that that it is okay to different. Here I was able to complete my high school credits in a shorter time span. By the end of April, I could come in and draw, or watch movies because I had finished my classes. There is no exact method of learning; everyone is different, and Simon Youth Foundation is starting a revolution around America by opening up more and more alternative high schools for the youth of today. Here, I learned more algebra than I ever would have anywhere else because the teaching is highly personalized. The best part is, I actually enjoyed it. Thank you Mr. Tanglis, for making that possible. Not every teacher is as patient as you and Ms. Murray are. Of the other things, I learned how to efficiently manage my time. In my opinion, my experience here was very much like college. I had to take my own notes and do my own research for the online classes; it was a very self-starting experience. Coming to PLA had its other perks too. For example, my peers and I would regularly go for a Starbucks run on the second floor of Northshore Mall after school. Those are the perks you can only have when your school is in a mall.

Next, I will summarize my four-year journey. Freshman year was the longest of them all. The puzzle of entering high school was presented before us. Most of us were nervous, anxious or scared. We became more concerned with what we wore and who we hung out with and less concerned with Polly Pockets and Pokémon cards. Like many of my classmates, I left the high school by choice in the spring of that year. Sophomore year was a blur. You are still an underclassmen so there is nothing new occurring and you just want time to pass by. So if you are like me, you try working at a home department store and hope that the time flies by. Thus, we coasted through sophomore year and soon, junior year came. We started exploring careers with Soren Balea, PLA’s career advisor. Some people found prom dates while others travelled overseas during school breaks to explore the vast and multi-cultural world we live in. Senior year came alas. Now, I’m not going to paint a shiny picture for you. That fall was a stressful period. New doubts had resurfaced. Our heads were filled with questions like “Is my GPA high enough? When are the deadlines for the SAT’s? Do I have enough activities in my high-school transcript?” Then, the three month college search began. I looked for colleges everywhere- from San-Francisco to London to Florida- everywhere except for home. Juniors and sophomores: do yourself the favor of not stressing out over college. I promise you that in the end, it will all fall into place for the very best. To my huge surprise, I ended up staying home, because well, home is really where the heart is, and also, where Endicott College is. There I will begin yet another journey and study what I love most: business, psychology and continuing, law. I learned this lesson the hard way, and it is that you don’t have to swing hard to hit a homerun, if you have the timing, it will go.

It turned out that the tall man with the shiny, bald head was and is none other than the director of the PLA. I’ll release the identity of the man because everyone here needs to know his name, Mr. Seith Bedard. Thank you for being the best teacher God could have ever given me. You are extraordinary and what you do every day for us is beyond words. The second to last week of school, my family and I drove into Boston and as I watched the city move beside me in pictures, I thought about Mr. B. All of a sudden, tears roll down my cheeks like an avalanche and I started crying like a newborn infant. I couldn’t believe that soon enough, I would be leaving the school that for as long as I can remember, had encouraged me to reach higher and to give my best. Mr. Bedard taught me many things that I will always value. He supported me in every academic decision I made and I cannot describe the sad, and overwhelming feelings I had as both my mother and I cried. The tears would just come out and they would not stop. I could not imagine what college was going to be like without Mr. B always guiding me on the sidelines. But sometimes, you have to let go because our planet is huge and there is even more opportunity that is waiting for us to discover. So we have no choice but to continue forth on our own paths and to keep to learning as much as we can.

Mr. Bedard, Mr. Tanglis, and Ms. Murray: I would be here all day just talking about you. Helpful, endlessly supporting, caring, funny, are some of the words that come to mind to describe some of the greatest people I’ve honestly ever met. You are quite unique. You have been here with me the whole way and I am so sad to have to let you go. But I am not saying goodbye. I’m saying I will see you all soon. Every now and then, I promise to visit and bring the three of you iced coffee and bagels, because that is how much I love you all. I have the highest respects to them, for they taught me how to see differently. You see, a good teacher explains, a great teacher inspires. Together they took my hand, opened my mind, and touched my heart, leaving me feeling all the more encouraged to go out and pursue my biggest dreams. A special thanks to Jess, for always listening to me and reminding me that we are all human beings and it is in fact okay to cry sometimes, as long as we always get up and get going.

Class of 2017, where are you? Make some noise!

I am weirdly going to miss all of the times that I had to ask Mr. T and Ms. Murray to turn the heat up because the weather at the PLA was very, very cold. Oftentimes, I’d come into school like an actual Eskimo, with a huge puffer coat, ear-muffs, gloves and a scarf. Families and friends, the entire PLA student body sitting around you can serve as testimonies to this. I will miss the funny, yet bright conversations between Ms. Murray and I, I will miss watching Netflix’s Life series with my classmates and laughing at the flying fish. Because there are fish that fly. Or more so, glide as I learned and there are monkeys that can crack gigantic tree nuts. I will miss eavesdropping on the one on one conversations about black holes in space and Carl Sagan between Mr. T and Luciano because, if you know me well, you know of I love space science. Mr. B’s HD military style lectures, the cloudy days and the warm days. I will miss the silence everyone would make in the lunchroom because someone had done or said something too loud, or broken a rule. I will miss the flexibility between my classes, I am going to miss it all so much. But I am going to miss you the most, my brave and hardworking class of 2017.

Of the many I have to thank, my mother is certainly at the very top. Monica Weinstein, I would like to thank you for all the times you went out of your way in my cause. I will always be indebted to you. Thank you for raising me to be the young woman I am now. You taught me to be headstrong, independent, faithful, and to have compassion for others. You are the purest love I will ever know. Mama, you are the motor to my dreams and one of the biggest reasons they proceed in full scale. No matter where I go, I will always remember to take you with me. You are beautiful as can be. Noor. (In Arabic that means light). When I could not sleep at night, afraid that things would not turn out right, you were there to hold me and sing to me.

Rony, you have been the greatest father I have come to know. For all these years, you drove me to school and everywhere else I needed to go. When I look back, you were always there. You are as constant as the sunrise, the moon and the stars; I can always count on you.

My parents are truly an excellent bunch. For 13 years, they have fed me delicious food from Gallo Nero, crusty pizza from Plum Tomatoes on midweek days just because and Dunkin Donuts Vanilla Chai. You are amazing, but not just amazing for these worldly reasons, you are amazing because you have shown me undying love in every down point in my life and for showing me right from wrong. For that, I am eternally grateful. Thank you for believing in me when I did not believe in myself.

Thank you to God. You have helped me find myself through the years and taught me how to breathe, and how to have ultimate faith in only you, the greatest. Thank you for teaching me to see with my heart, because you cannot see some of the best things in life, you can only feel them. Without God nothing is possible.

So now it is time to say goodbye to high school, and say hello to the future.

As I graduate today, I see this as a huge accomplishment, but I want to see more of my underclassmen up on here as well.

Whatever you do, (underclassmen) try to make the most of your time. It is so precious, and once you spend it, it will not ever come back. Strive to be the best versions of yourselves. Fly through the turbulence, and live life because you are a warrior. Remember that it is not about how hard you hit, it is about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. It is about how much you can take, and keep moving forward. If you know what you are worth then go out and get what you are worth, but you have to be willing to take the hits. Fail forward like me, be a dream chaser and chase your dreams.

Thank you to my cousin Jabriela. You are also noor. I feel so happy knowing I can endow my life to you. That is not something you can say to everyone. You are my sister in faith, and in every other way.

A hug and thanks to the beautiful and hilarious Angelica Luna. You were my friend when I really needed one and ever since then all I see in you is light. I can always share an interesting yet good laugh with you. God bless you on whatever path you take.

I would like to shower upon everyone here a final note of gratitude and thanks for supporting me.

Today I feel immensely determined and empowered to live my life to the absolutely fullest. But I would not feel that way if it were not for all the love and help you have mercifully shown. The only thing left to say now is congratulations to the Peabody Learning Academy class of 2017 and to those who helped us get here. Think of it this way: the world we live in is plagued with dangers: Zika virus, global warming and facial acne. But despite all the odds, we still managed to graduate. So let’s give each other a big round of applause, because we did it!

Be phenomenal, or be forgotten.

The Bigger the Obstacle, the Bigger the Future

Nacole C. with members of Simon Youth Academy at Chester I. Lewis and Simon Youth Foundation.

Nacole’s story tells of her consistency, perseverance and determination, which has inspired all of us at SYF.

Nacole received one of four Simon Youth Foundation Best of the Best scholarships awarded this year. She was awarded a total of $40,000, over four years, to continue her studies at Wichita State University (Wichita, KS).

Nacole plans to study Psychology.

Nacole’s graduation address:

The beginning can be summed up by being in state’s custody, repeatedly running away and several attempts to graduate. At 16, I found myself at Job Corps, but was asked to leave after my decision to not follow the rules, so back to the Children’s home I went. I ran away, again, and was arrested two weeks before my 18th birthday. The judge ruling on my case gave me a writing assignment. My task was to convince the court that I should be released from custody. One of my strengths is writing and I was able to convince the judge to release me. I finally had independence.

But, the fear of not being good enough and my math anathema crippled my determination. Eight years later, at 26, I was having my second son and I knew I needed to do two things: make money and go to school. It only took a short time for me to realize that I was not going to get anywhere without my diploma. I would lie in interviews and say that I had my diploma so that I could get jobs in customer service. As a result of this, I was unable to be happy when offered promotions, due to my fear of being found out. Anxiety kicked in, followed by depression; it was a vicious cycle.

I felt like I had wasted so much valuable time. I started really thinking about my future, my children and the importance of education.

My grandmother was the only consistency in my life, but I realized that she would not be around to support me forever; it was time for me to take care of her. She always believed in me. My pastor, mom and Dr. Cindy always believed in me, but I did not believe in myself.

Three years ago, I decided not to let fear be my driving force. I decided that no matter what people said or long it took, I was going to be consistent and graduate.

My intention was to repay my grandma for the sacrifices that she made for my children, my education and me. Unfortunately, she passed away last year, and her death catapulted my determination to finish school; that was all she ever wanted for me.

A year later, I was in my last two high school classes. I was on a roll: honoring my grandma and about to graduate. Then, my 11-year-old son, Hayden, was hit by a car, which left me having to focus on him and school at the same time. I was able to multi-task and finish my classes, whist caring for my temporarily disabled son. I am grateful for all of the lessons that I have learned along the way. I know that my children are proud of me, and encouraged. My counselor, family, teachers and friends are proud of me. I know that my grandma is smiling down on me and probably, playing her tambourine,

I plan on starting an organization to help under privileged youth called, “Actions Speak Louder.” I want people to understand that it takes more than book smarts and words. Sometimes it takes action. I am not discrediting book smarts, though, I just know from experience that you also have to have the ability to relate to another person’s pain.

My son is recovering, my consistency paid off and so did yours. We are all, in a way, recovered from whatever kept us from graduating.

SYF’s Testimonial Thursday – Sage A.,















Graduation Speech by Sage A.
2017 Simon Youth Judson Learning Academy at Rolling Oaks Mall

Good evening and welcome family, friends, and most importantly, my fellow graduates of 2017! I am honored to stand before all of you tonight speaking on behalf of my class.  I know everyone here has worked extremely hard in order to be on this stage tonight. With that said, I also know that a lot of us would not be here today if not given the chance by the Judson Learning Academy. You see, JLA is not a school that just anyone can attend; it is a school like no other, a school that thrives from improving the educational opportunities of “at-risk “youth.

You may be asking yourselves what I mean when I say “at-risk youth”. Simply put, we are the example.  At some point in our educational careers, we all fell behind, so much so that without this school most, if not all of us, would not be here today. However, we are defined by the choices we make now, not the mistakes made in the past. We chose to leave that life behind us, in order to come to JLA, and become high school graduates.

Now, don’t get me wrong…that doesn’t mean it was a walk in the park. I still have reoccurring nightmares of all the modules we had to go through, so many paper cuts! But it was all worth it, not only for us now, but for our future. We still have a long road in front of us. Although we are all adults, we are only now able to close the final chapters of our childhood.

We will leave here today excited, proud, and ready to take on the world! To my fellow graduates, I ask each of you to remember how great this feeling is and whenever you come to a fork in the road, just remember this day and what you have accomplished to keep moving forward! So be proud of yourselves and most of all…enjoy the moment that you walk down this stage. I hope that the choices you make going forward reflect the choices you made this year.

To everyone who came out to support us, I hope you are able to enjoy watching us, the “at risk” students, beat the odds and finally receive our diplomas. Each student in this room deserves a pat on the back for hanging in there and defying the odds.

Thank you JLA for having the patience and optimism for a student like me, a former drop out and now father, and giving me the opportunity to come out here on this stage and talk with honor and dignity on behalf of my class as I receive my high school diploma. Allowing me to not only make myself; but my family proud, and for that, I will forever be grateful!

And finally, thank you all for showing us your support and giving me your time. Congratulations once again, class of 2017!