56 Stories, 56 Graduates, 1 Amazing Night!

business, leadershipThinking back, I am not sure what I expected. I had been asked to represent the executive staff by speaking at the graduation ceremonies for one of our high schools (didn’t know Goodwill Indy had high schools, did you?). I was flattered to have been asked, but really had no idea what to say. This was not an ordinary high school, this was a school for adults who had dropped out for one reason or another, but who now wanted to come back and complete their high school diploma, not just earn a G.E.D. I would be speaking at The Excel Center – Anderson. What could I possibly say that would be meaningful to them? Would their families come to watch? My own graduation was over 35 years ago, what connection would I have to them? I didn’t realize I was about to be blown away!

I arrived early (wouldn’t want to be late) so I sat in my car and worked a bit (OK, I read email, but hey that IS my work!). I was stunned, as car after car pulled into the lot. I walked inside to find the place packed with friends and family. The students were busy putting on the caps and gowns. I was immediately struck by their genuine excitement (some nervous excitement maybe), their closeness to each other, and their closeness to the faculty. The mood was one of celebration and it was contagious!

I donned my robe and took my place next to the school’s director (principal) as we processed in. As the graduates walked down the aisles (making a pass down each aisle so friends and family could see their graduate) the excitement built as cameras (ok cell phones) flashed.  Sitting in the front on the stage, I could see the faces of husbands, wives, parents and children of the graduates, already I was choking back tears.

Three graduates had been selected to speak. I can’t begin to do their stories justice. One was a woman who had dropped out twenty-three years prior. She wanted to come back, now years later, to get her diploma to be a role model for her kids. Another was a young man who had struggled in traditional school and had been tagged “special needs”. He was now graduating with several certifications and heading off to college. The third was a young lady whose best friend had been murdered, the depression and confusion this brought into her life destroyed her high school career. She had come back to earn her diploma to honor her friend. Amazing stories! My guess is, the other 53 graduates’ stories were just as amazing!

You can read their stories hear: Laura, Isaac, Sarah.

How could I possibly follow THAT? A few days before the event, I had come to the realization (kind of a duh moment) that no one was there to hear me speak. They were all there for them, for the graduates. Keep it short, keep it simple.

I am truly honored to be here tonight representing the Goodwill family on such a special occasion. We, your friends and family, your teachers and faculty, and Anderson community leaders are here to celebrate with you.

To the community leaders of Anderson, I want to say thank you. Thank you for the partnership and the vision that lead to the opening of the Anderson Excel Center just two short years ago. Your support of the Excel Center has enabled them, the third graduating class, to achieve what otherwise might have been un-achievable.

To the teachers and administrators, I want to say thank you. Thank you for the dedication and caring that enabled you to teach, inspire and change lives. What you do is incredibly difficult, and yet so incredibly important. I and the rest of the 3,000 employees of Goodwill are honored to be your colleagues.  Your work here has been nothing short of amazing.

To the friends and families of our graduates who are here tonight, I want to say thank you. Thank you for being here to celebrate with your graduate. Thank you for the support you have shown as they attended classes, did homework, and studied. I am sure it was not always easy, nor convenient. They are here in front of you today due in part to your support.

To the graduates, I want to say thank you. Thank you for allowing us to join in your celebration. Your lives have been forever changed. Each of you has a story, a story of roadblocks and obstacles. But tonight, you have added a chapter to that story, a chapter of perseverance, of fortitude, of overcoming those roadblocks and obstacles. Whether your next step is a career, or you plan to go on to college, you have accomplished something tremendous. You can say, proudly, “I am a graduate! Thank you for sharing your story with us, thank you for sharing your moment with us. Thank you for changing our lives as well.

 As each student received their diploma, I had the honor of shaking their hand. Each one of them looked me in the eye, business, leadershipproudly. As I congratulated each of them, tears continued to well up. This is why we do what we do, this is why I do what I do, for those 56 new high school graduates that are ready to take on the world!

To see pictures of that night at The Excel Center – Anderson, or the other Excel Center graduations check out the photo album. To learn more about The Excel Centers visit our website at: The Excel Center.

If anything you read here or in other posts strikes a chord, I would love to hear from you. Leave a comment, hit me up on Twitter (@jtongici), find me on LinkedIn, or Google +.

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