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VEAZIE, Maine — When Denise and Bob Needham discovered their third child had trisomy 16 — a chromosomal disorder that can result in congenital abnormalities or miscarriage — they worried about their son’s future and the obstacles he would face.
They didn’t know if he would attend high school, or how and if he’d be able to express himself.
This year, Matthew Needham will graduate from Veazie Community School and move on to high school in the fall — a big milestone for the 15-year-old. But how and if that ceremony will happen are unknown as schools come up with new plans to celebrate their graduates in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We never in a million years thought that he’d be graduating,” said Needham’s mother.
All four of the Needhams’ boys have attended the small kindergarten through eighth-grade Veazie school, but the way the community has supported Matthew through the years stuck with the family.
“He’s grown a lot there,” his parents said.
So when VCS Principal Matthew Cyr stuck a red and white lawn sign in front of the Needhams’ house recognizing Matthew Needham as a soon-to-be graduate, it stood for the family as a symbol of the challenges he’s overcome and how the school helped him succeed.
“It was just such a great moment for us,” said Denise, eyes brimming with tears as she remembered pulling into the driveway after work and seeing the sign in the yard for the first time.
But the Needhams’ house wasn’t Cyr’s only stop on Thursday.
After loading up his car with the 12 lawn signs — one for each graduate — he drove around town planting personalized signs in each soon-to-be graduate’s yard.
His surprise gesture was intended to be a “pick-me-up” for the kids whose final year of junior high has been taken from them, Cyr said.
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More than a month has passed since most schools — including VCS — shut their doors to prevent spreading COVID-19, the disease caused by a novel coronavirus.
Graduation is still a few weeks away, but teachers at VCS have been brainstorming ways to make the time special for their graduates, despite bans on mass gatherings, social distancing recommendations and a shift to remote learning as the pandemic continues.
“Unfortunately we don’t know yet what that experience will look like,” Cyr said about a possible ceremony. “We’re holding on strong though, that we’ll still be able to do something face to face.”
Cyr said the signs he delivered to the students also should remind VCS students that their teachers haven’t forgotten about them.
Emily Francis and her son Benjamin, a VCS eighth-grader, were home when Cyr dropped by with his sign. “It was a happy emotional feeling to walk out and have something special made like that for my son,” she said.
Outside of VCS, parents have been honoring their own graduates with customized lawn signs. Kim Fitzpatrick, a mother of two seniors at John Bapst Memorial High School, bought two lawn signs with her children’s names written in purple on a white background — the school’s signature colors.
It’s a way for parents to celebrate their kids who are missing out on a traditional senior year experience, Fitzpatrick explained. She thought of adding their Lacrosse photos, but didn’t want to rub more salt in the wound for her boys, who will miss their final season.
As Cyr visited each house, sticking a single lawn sign in each yard before leaving without a word, he said it felt great to do something special for the graduates, but still felt a pang of sadness because their last year of junior high was upended.
It means they miss out on a traditional final year, the customary graduation ceremony and for many, it will be their last chance to say goodbye to their peers, teachers and the school they grew up in.
“I felt bad thinking that they’re not gonna have that true goodbye,” Cyr said.
While the pandemic has turned life upside down for those students who expected to walk across a stage in a cap and gown this June, it’s also highlighted an indisputable quality of Maine people — resiliency in the face of adversity and an instinct to make the best out of a tough situation.
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