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Graduates receive festive recognition in Big Cypress

Ahfachkee School valedictorian Priscilla Alvarado, left, and salutatorian Leilani Gopher pose at a graduation celebration for 2020 graduates from the Big Cypress and Immokalee reservations June 9, 2020, in Big Cypress. (Kevin Johnson photo)

BIG CYPRESS – It’s not often that a lengthy line of vehicles occupies a stretch of Josie Billie Highway on the Big Cypress Reservation, but the “heavy traffic” in the early evening of June 9 featured some honorable passengers.

Big Cypress Reservation and Immokalee Reservation graduates from the class of 2020’s preschools, kindergarten, high school and other academic levels were honored by the Big Cypress Council Office. The students rode in a police-escorted parade that started from near the Frank Billie Field Office and headed north to the open field in front of the old bingo facility. Several vehicles were decorated with balloons and congratulatory themes and messages as the graduates – whose last few months of school were significantly altered by the Covid-19 pandemic –  waved to bystanders, including Seminole Fire Rescue personnel who gathered outside the station to honor the students.  

Due to the pandemic, everything was held outside. Vehicles parked in the bingo field. One-by-one, Mariann Billie called graduates to drive up. While staying in their vehicle, students received gifts in a drive-thru fashion. A boisterous chorus of applause and honking from the vehicles greeted each student.

Preschool graduate Ellis Gopher, 4, waves during the parade honoring graduates from the Big Cypress and Immokalee reservations June 9, 2020, in Big Cypress. (Kevin Johnson photo)

Afterward, President Mitchell Cypress, Jarrid Smith, who recently earned a master’s degree from Nova Southeastern University, and Ahfachkee School valedictorian Priscilla Alvarado spoke to the students and their families.

President Cypress congratulated all the students and addressed the high school graduates specifically.

“Whatever you want to do, the Seminole Tribe will back you up,” he said. “I know there [were] times when you didn’t want to get up and go to school back in grade school, but today it pays off.”

Smith emphasized three areas that the high school graduates should focus on as they move forward.

Ahfachkee School graduate Alena Stockton gets a front row ride during a graduation parade for 2020 graduates from the Big Cypress and Immokalee reservations June 9, 2020, in Big Cypress. Stockton plans to attend Florida SouthWestern State College in Fort Myers on a basketball scholarship. (Kevin Johnson photo)

“When you do those things – priorities, boundaries and finding joy every day – that’s the kind of things that will get you to where you want to be in life,” he told the graduates.

The former Florida Atlantic University football player from Big Cypress provided an example of where to set priorities.

“I find if you keep your priorities simple, that’s the best. My priorities are faith, family and my community,” he said.

He added that the graduates shouldn’t allow their boundaries to be set by others, and even in tough times – such as the pandemic – he encouraged the students to try to find joy in each day.

Clewiston High School graduate Tash Jumper participates in a graduation celebration June 9, 2020, on the Big Cypress Reservation. (Kevin Johnson photo)

“In the days that have passed, we’ve all been kind of stuck at home or we couldn’t go where we wanted to – the normal things – so finding joy might not seem so easy, but maybe you found some new sources of joy,” he said.

Alvarado provided a final farewell for the evening, which included an address to her 2020 Ahfachkee classmates, whose last few months as high school students were spent online due to the pandemic.  

“Today we celebrate together, not as we dreamed of, to say goodbyes under very unique circumstances which none of us could have ever prepared for. However, this is not our final goodbyes, for the best is yet to come,” said Alvarado, who was accompanied by salutatorian Leilani Gopher.

Alvarado thanked Ahfachkee “for the academic foundation I have received” and praised the school’s staff.

Calvary Christian School graduate Abigail Tigertail, sitting in back, participates in a graduation ceremony parade June 9, 2020, on the Big Cypress Reservation. (Kevin Johnson photo)

“We thank you for being such an instrumental part in our academic journey, a journey which will impact us for years to come,” she said.

In conclusion, Alvarado encouraged her classmates to continue their good work.

“My classmates, I urge you to be a role model and an example for our future graduates,” she said. “Keep fighting to do the best you can do.

“We’ve accomplished one of the many milestones in life, and it does not stop here.”

Jarrid Smith, who grew up on the Big Cypress Reservation and recently earned a master’s degree from Nova Southeastern University, speaks to graduates during a graduation celebration June 9, 2020, on the grounds of the former Big Cypress bingo hall. (Kevin Johnson photo)
President Mitchell Cypress speaks at a graduation celebration June 9, 2020, on the Big Cypress Reservation. (Kevin Johnson photo)
A line of vehicles moves north on Josie Billie Highway en route to the bingo hall grounds during a graduation celebration for students from the Big Cypress and Immokalee reservations June 9, 2020. (Kevin Johnson photo)
A vehicle honors 2020 graduates during a celebration June 9, 2020, in Big Cypress. (Kevin Johnson photo)

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