The seven graduates at John Archer School's 40th commencement eagerly bid farewell to their tight-knit alma mater Friday afternoon, as they celebrated how far they have come.
Friends, family and supporters filled the school's auditorium and excitedly watched the young people, clad in red caps and gowns, come up to receive gifts from Parent Teacher Association President Kim Holcomb and certificates from Harford County Board of Education President Leonard Wheeler.
"This is just unbelievable," Darryl Benjamin, father of graduate Dante Benjamin, said after the ceremony.
Darryl Benjamin had come from Boston for the ceremony and had tears in his eyes talking about his son, who planned to work at Rite Aid after graduation.
"It's been a long road," Darryl Benjamin said about his son, adding he was glad "to see how he is accepted here, to see how he is flourishing."
"This school is just great," he said, explaining Dante's doctors originally did not think he would survive childhood. "Just [for him] to be able to move around in society, you can't put a price on that. Just to hear that he is working at Rite Aid."
Mary Gernand, acting principal at the school, congratulated the students and talked about what they have achieved.
"We have a diverse and interesting group of young men and women graduating here today," she said.
As always, each John Archer graduate got individual recognition.
Robert DeClercq has a "cheerful disposition" and sense of humor, Gernand said, and loves to read and ask insightful questions.
"He loves to be involved and always wants to be busy," she said, adding he will move on to attend the Harford Center in Havre de Grace.
Jennifer Gallatin has made significant academic and communication strides, works very hard at physical therapy, has helped make pillows for a cancer organization, enjoys socializing and likes pop stars Justin Bieber and Nick Jonas.
She is also tentatively planning to attend the Harford Center, Gernand said.
Mustafa Khan has traveled with his family to Pakistan for a wedding, developed a significant amount of independence around the school building, learned to follow directions and likes singing songs.
His favorite songs are "Happy Birthday," "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" and "Yankee Doodle," Gernand said.
He is also the class "cardio star" for walking on a treadmill, and will also join his friends at the Harford Center.
Emily Roberts is a "diligent" worker and excellent reader, and has been a very dependable worker at Southampton Middle School.
She is very active outside of school and is a member of the Staccatos, a music and theater program. Emily also likes bowling and basketball, and going to dances. After graduation, she will head to The Arc.
Thomas Ross likes going for walks, music and is the "ultimate attendance deliverer," Gernand said.
"He is happiest when he is working. He is a super sorter," she said.
Casey Spear was the "prom debutante featured on the front of The Aegis," Gernand noted. Casey likes line dancing and is an asset to the chorus.
"She loves to wear her bling," Gernand said, adding she is undecided about where she will go after graduation.
Glenn Watkins has "superb interviewing skills" and his favorite country song is Shania Twain's "Man! I Feel Like a Woman!"
"He has exhibited excellent leadership qualities," Gernand said, adding he has tried to assist other students and will go on to the Penn-Mar Organization.
Holcomb, the PTA president, pointed out how far the class has come this year, including taking part in its first prom.
"It was a huge success and well-attended, and something we will be looking forward to every year," she said. "We are so fortunate to have such a wonderful school as John Archer, and this school has been like a second family for most of these students."
Harford County Executive David Craig, who attended the ceremony, applauded the "efforts and sacrifices" of those in the audience.
"On behalf of the people of Harford County, we love you, we congratulate you and we wish you all the best in the future," Craig said.
County Councilman Dion Guthrie usually attends the John Archer ceremony, but sent his new legislative aide instead because he was attending a funeral.
The beaming families of those students made it clear John Archer was a second home to many of them.
"I am proud as can be," Vernon DeClercq, father of Robert DeClercq, said at the reception afterward.
Khushtar Khan and his wife, Almas Khan, said they were also glad to see their son, Mustafa, graduating.
"It's a very great feeling. I am very proud that he is graduating from John Archer," Khushtar Khan said, adding he is very glad the family moved to Harford County from New York.
Almas Khan added: "They care a lot here. They are very responsible."