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Overcoming All Odds, Students Graduate From Institute of Living, Natchaug Schools

June 23, 2021

By Shawn Mawhiney and Robin Stanley

At the Joshua Center Thames Valley High School graduation this week, Sanye Taylor had only two roses to give, but many people to share them with.

So what did she do? Not skipping a beat, she systematically walked the room at the Hartford HealthCare East Region System Support Office in Norwich, where her graduation was held, handing out petals one by one to those who have helped her

That kind of problem-solving symbolizes how far she, and many other Hartford HealthCare Behavioral Health Network students have come, at the eight schools run by Natchaug Hospital, the Institute of Living and St. Vincent’s Behavioral health Services. At each school, countless stories reavealed students coming out of their shells, improving their attendance and overcoming traumatic life experiences — with proud parents on hand, so grateful for reaching graduation day. Adding a pandemic to the mix only enhanced the sense of accomplishment, with students expected to continue their studies from home.

The schools, which can include students as young as elementary school up to high school age, are a landing pad for kids with behavioral health conditions that make it difficult for them to succeed in traditional school environments. Some students end up returning to their hometown schools, while others like Sanye build their confidence, learn life skills and remain until they graduate.

Tuition is paid for by the towns students live in, and towns must approve the payment. Students are generally referred by professionals like school counselors, teachers or clinicians, but parents can also inquire about the schools.

At the Natchaug graduation where four students graduated, Principal Lamirra Simeon thanked her entire staff, and marveled at the tight bonds they share with their students.

She also gave students advice for the future, such as taking care of themselves before they take care of others, treating people how they would want to be treated, and the importance of how they carry themselves – first impressions are lasting impressions.

A light moment came when Simeon surprised the crowd of students, family members, faculty, support staff and administrators by singing the beginning of “Lean on Me.” She then stopped abruptly, joking to the audience “That’s all you are going to get!”

Forty-five miles away in Hartford, the Grace S. Webb school staff made sure the class of 2021 was able to have its ceremony in person after last year’s Zoom graduation.

Despite the masks and social distancing, the celebratory atmosphere of the ceremony was heartfelt and personal for each of the seven graduating seniors. After a unique last year of high school, the graduates were praised for their perseverance and ability to adapt to ever-changing policies due to the pandemic.

“Our graduates were able to transform from a classroom experience into a world where Zoom meetings became the norm,” said Kikke Levin-Gerdner, Ed.D, director, the Webb Schools. “With their perseverance and bravery in the midst of what at the time felt like chaos, they were there, never giving up and continuing on their journey toward graduation.”

Annetta Caplinger, vice president of clinical operations for the Institute of Living, called the graduation a milestone “during an unforgettable moment in history.”

“We all had to adapt to this pandemic,” she said. “This includes changing how we interact with the world, each other, and dealing with the losses that our families have suffered. It should not be lost, however, that the human spirit prevails. During this year, people continued to live and love and work towards goals. This group of graduates, their families and the Grace Webb School staff did just that.”

Joseph Lawless, district manager of the Hartford Region for Penske Rental, was this year’s commencement speaker and spoke to the graduates about the importance of following their passions.

“Choose a path that fits your interests and skills,” he said. “Be who you are and let the world adapt to you. There will be challenges ahead on your journey, many of which you have already overcome.”

During the presentation of diplomas, each graduate had the opportunity to thank their families and the Webb School staff. Many students spoke about how grateful they were for the Webb Schools for helping them become a better version of themselves.

“Thank you to the staff that has put time and effort into molding me into someone who I can be proud of,” one student said.

To learn more about Natchaug’s Joshua Center schools click here.

To learn more about the IOL’s Grace Webb schools, click here.