Stories of struggle, triumph at Stewart School graduation

Jolynn Ryan ran across the stage to collect her graduation certificate Wednesday night, waving furiously at her family.

That’s typical for her, according to Alisha Ryan, her mother. Jolynn, almost 18, is full of life and loves running around. And that wasn’t supposed to happen. At age 2, she was diagnosed with trisomy 13, a rare disease that most doctors considered terminal.

Many of Jolynn’s classmates at Helen J. Stewart School, a Clark County school specifically for students with severe disabilities and special needs, have similar stories of struggle and triumph. Fourteen students were celebrated at the school Wednesday night, marking the first ceremony for the Clark County School District’s 2018 graduation season.

“I’m really just ecstatic she made it,” Alisha said as she helped Jolynn pose for a photo in her cap and gown after the ceremony, which included each student being individually escorted into the ceremony and a slideshow featuring photos of students throughout their years at Stewart.

Students also honored their families at the ceremony, giving a loved one a rose, which was meant to mark just how much the students have blossomed at the school.

Principal Patricia Schultz presided over the ceremony, crediting the “magical touch of the staff.” That staff includes Ritha Burrows, a special education teacher who has been at Stewart since August 1975 and is retiring this year. During the ceremony, Burrows sat with a bouquet of balloons for the graduates.

A fierce defender of the students, she has taken her knowledge and presented at conferences around the nation. Years ago, Burrows started a community education program at the school when she took more than 20 students to a restaurant for a meal. She’s a contact for parents and families, many of whom have her personal phone number, Schultz said.

“She should qualify for sainthood,” Schultz said.

Like Jolynn’s family, Christopher Ruesch’s family wasn’t sure he would ever get to this point. Christopher and his twin brother were born two-and-a-half months premature, and Christopher was born feet first. He has cerebral palsy and autism.

But if you ask his mother, he’s the closest thing to heaven she will even witness on Earth. Terena Reusch said the whole evening was overwhelming.

“He’s such a happy, content little boy,” she said. “He’s my little miracle boy.”

For Franshawn Carter, the ceremony marked a time to reflect on the challenges she and her family faced to get Anthony Carter-Martin to this point. She struggled to maintain a full-time job throughout the years, because Anthony’s epilepsy and other medical issues meant constant care.

“I don’t even have the words,” she said. ” I can’t beleive we’re even here.”

Although the students, who are all about 18, participated in the graduation ceremony, they don’t have to leave just yet. Because of their severe needs, the students are eligible to stay at the school until they are 22.

Contact Meghin Delaney at 702-383-0281 or mdelaney@reviewjournal.com. Follow @MeghinDelaney on Twitter.

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