Photo Credit - Madison Slayton, Ascend Student Ministry Photographer
For many students, the 2020 graduation season has arrived in something less than grand fashion--sadly absent of the face to face graduation parties, proms and other public ceremonies that--in the COVID-19 pandemic--have been cancelled or rescheduled for the duration of the year.
Yet the celebration goes on at the Grace World Outreach Church in Brooksville. Here, Youth Pastors Chris and Analysa Fullam, the church's youth ministers in the Ascend Youth Program, recently offered its 'pupil parishioners' a combination graduation ceremony and party--one celebrated at their own homes.
"As we saw more and more graduations postponed or not happening at all, we didn't want our kids to feel cheated of anything," said Chris Fullam. "We wanted to honor them--to make them feel special."
Since the Grace Outreach seniors couldn't 'go to graduation' this year, the Fullams brought graduation to them May 17; traveling with their youth ministry team to the homes of 15 Grace grads to celebrate a rousing round of Surprise Graduations.
And they brought the party with them.
"We rolled out a red carpet to the front door of each student, and laid a cap and gown at the door," Chris Fullam explained. "We stood at the other end with clappers, noisemakers and glitter, with other team members taking pictures of the grads and their parents, and playing music."
And what would a grad party be without praise and presents?
"We screamed out the name of each graduate, and left them a gift bag filled with journals, mugs, and other useful items. We wanted to give them essential gifts, like school supplies," said Chris Fullam.
They also gifted each grad with a hearty dose of happiness.
"(The youth ministry) shed some light into my life at this time," said Eddie Maura, graduating senior at Hernando High School. "It made me feel wonderful for them to honor me, to show all the kids that they care about and love us."
Maura's experience as a young parishioner at Grace World Outreach Church has left him with another valuable gift: a future calling and career in the ministerial arts.
"I'm going to SUM Bible College to become a minister," he said.
And when asked if Pastor Chris Fullam inspired this career path, his answer is simple and to the point.
Honored Grace grad Bianca Cole, graduating senior at Nature Coast Technical High School, was also deeply touched by her Surprise Graduation experience.
"It was so sweet. It made me feel so special," said Cole, a dual enrollment student who plans to continue her studies at Pasco-Hernando State College, pursuing a degree in education. "We've been so cooped up for so long--to open my door to gifts, a cap and gown, and a red carpet was really something special."
The experience was also special to Christian Hallman, Ascend Student Ministry Leader and DJ for this event.
"I played Pomp and Circumstance and some celebration songs for each grad," he said. "This small gesture of kindness meant the world to those kids."
Sarah Brosher, an Ascend Student Ministry Leader who made congratulatory posters for the grads, agrees.
"They were all so shocked, so overwhelmed and excited," she said of the grads. "We felt blessed to make their day."
Jodi Martens, the Ascend Student Ministry Leader who prepared the students' caps and gowns for delivery to their doors--along with personal notes for each student--said that the Surprise Graduations were custom designed to "lift up the students and make them feel better"; a feat they also accomplished for the students' parents.
"This whole team of people came together to make my girls feel special," said Tabitha Hatten, mother of graduating homeschool students Samantha and Olivia Hatten. "So much time and thought went into this. As usual, this church has their fingers on the pulse of these kids' lives."
Nancy Escoda, mother of graduating homeschool student Vanessa Escoda, agrees.
"These kids felt like they'd been cheated," she said. "The church and community made them feel loved."