IMMOKALEE — As the 11 members of the Ahfachkee School class of 2019 crowded the stage at the Seminole Casino Hotel Immokalee on May 21, their families filled the enormous Seminole Center ballroom.
The joyous event was a celebration of the students’ hard work and determination leading to their graduation from high school and their entry into adulthood. But first, they received words of wisdom from some veteran adults.
“Your parents are probably wondering where the time went,” said Principal Dorothy Cain. “You are social and digital natives, you’ve grown up in a digital world. You have the ability to have the world at your fingertips and are ready to tackle whatever you choose to do.”
Big Cypress Councilman Mondo Tiger was impressed with the graduates and their families.
“This is a special day for you guys,” he said. “Parents, thank you for allowing your children to attend Ahfachkee. Students, you have the key to the world. Explore and enjoy life, but treasure tonight. It only happens once in a lifetime.”
Big Cypress Board Rep. Joe Frank told the students that as a graduate 47 years ago, he was sitting in the “hot, sweaty gym in Immokalee High School.” He urged them not to be afraid, but to be themselves.
“The Creator has given you a mission in life,” Rep. Frank said. “Your ancestors gave you a legacy to walk comfortably among all people. The school’s staff provided you with all the tools you need to go forth through this century. Don’t be afraid; be yourself.”
President Mitchell Cypress told the kids the Tribe will always have their backs.
“The door is open for whatever you want to do,” he said. “We will back you up; it’s your turn to go out and explore the world.” The class of 2019 could be the largest Ahfachkee has graduated; no one could remember a larger one.
“This is part of history to see so many graduates,” said Lee Zepeda, executive director of administration, in his keynote address. “Don’t choose a career; follow your calling. Don’t choose a position; follow your purpose. The decisions you make will shape you. Think about what comes naturally to you, where you feel most at home. Live with purpose and remember, you were made to be free.”
An abundance of gifts were bestowed on the class. Councilman Tiger provided class rings, President Cypress provided gift bags filled with useful technology and Parent Teacher Student Organization President Lenore Roberts provided necklaces and other gifts.
“This is a huge accomplishment you’ve made,” Roberts said. “It took three wars and a long time for us to get here and we are still here as the Seminole people. Carry that with you with a lot of pride. Honor all those people who sacrificed to get here; honor that every day. What steps will you take to remain the Seminole Tribe? Take giant steps for your people.”
In a longstanding school tradition, graduates left the stage and presented gratitude gifts to their loved ones. Love and hugs ensued. A new tradition also began; honor cords for community service honors. Students who had 75-99 hours received a silver cord; those who served more than 100 hours received a gold cord to wear with their cap and gown.
The Warrior Award is presented to the student who demonstrated characteristics of being a warrior. Music teacher Cesar Taveras defined that characteristic as perseverance and presented the award to Crystal Garcia, who persevered during music classes and found her passion in the form of the bass guitar.
“This is what perseverance looks like,” Taveras said.
Special cords were awarded to salutatorian Thomlynn Billie and valedictorian Janessa Jones, who gave the traditional valedictorian speech. The large size of the class allowed the students to form a strong bond.
“I’m glad we made it through together and am grateful to have a class that thrives on life,” said Jones, 17. “We are here to celebrate our accomplishments. I hear graduation marks the end of this extraordinary chapter; it’s bittersweet. We are all anxious to start the next one and it will be just as great or greater.”
Jones will attend Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas, where she will study political science, Native American studies and business administration.
“We are the Tribe’s future and I hope to come back and work for our Tribe,” she said. “Thank you to the Tribe for investing in its youth; we are worth every cent.”