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The APG Federal Credit Union Arena filled with cheers as Bel Air High School graduate Jacob Smith, a student with special needs, crossed the stage to receive his diploma during the school’s recent commencement.

Smith, 19, of Abingdon, was one of about 363 members of the Class of 2019 who were honored during Bel Air’s annual commencement ceremony May 30 at the Harford Community College arena.

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His mother, Tracy Smith, fought back tears after the ceremony as she recalled the moment her son crossed the stage.

“It touched me,” she said, noting the challenges parents of special-needs students face as they work to ensure their children receive the appropriate services and become part of the school community.

“You want him included, it’s your dream,” Tracy Smith said.

The graduates heard words of encouragement during the ceremony from their peers, their principal and adult leaders in Harford County.

Local elected officials, including Board of Education President Joseph Voskuhl, County Councilman Tony Giangiordano, state Sen. J.B. Jennings and state Del. Susan McComas, spoke.

Voskuhl, a former Bel Air High principal, encouraged the class to be proud of accomplishing “a milestone in your lives,” plus to “thank your parents for all their hard work in getting you to this point.”

“Whether it be a job, the military or college, I know you can be successful because you have a foundation provided by Bel Air High School, so congratulations, good luck and be safe,” he said.

Giangiordano, a freshman member of the council, is a graduate of Bel Air High School. He talked about his efforts to start and grow his insurance firm upon returning to Bel Air after graduating from college.

“I didn’t have a lot of money,” he recalled. “I struggled, but I had integrity, my family, my friends and great influences along the way.”

Giangiordano told the graduates that, whatever they choose to do in life, to “do it to the best of your ability.”

“Keep your integrity the best you can, keep plugging away, and go Bobcats!” he said.

Principal Greg Komondor thanked BAHS faculty, staff — including cafeteria workers, custodians, nurses and secretaries — and administrators for their work each day to support Bel Air students and get them to commencement.

He gave special thanks to assistant principal James Lamb, who is departing for a new assignment.

“Always remember, once a Bobcat always a Bobcat,” Komondor said. “Thank you for being my friend.”

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The principal said later that Lamb, who has been the administrator for the senior class, will be an assistant principal serving Joppatowne High School and Magnolia Middle School next year.

The graduates also heard from student speakers Riya Patel and Noah Alexander, valedictorian Brent Lorin and Jessica Mills, senior class president.

“Remember that the future for ourselves, and this world, is in our hands, so be strong, keep learning, keep inspiring, keep dreaming and achieve those dreams,” Patel said.

Alexander offered a “eulogy” for his and his classmates’ high school lives, comparing freshman year to early childhood, sophomore year to adolescence, junior year to adulthood and senior year to old age.

He stressed, after giving his eulogy for high school, that “from what I can see, none of us are dead yet.”

“We still have our whole lives — we still have time to learn and grow and have fun,” Alexander said. “If you didn’t like how these four years turned out, then change something for your next life, whatever that may be.”

Mills announced the senior class gift, what she called “a gift of appreciation.” The class will contract with a local firm to manufacture iron letters to spell out “Home of the Bobcats” over the school stadium entrance.

Part of the Bobcat family

Tracy Smith talked about how her son, Jacob, has been included in multiple activities during his time at Bel Air High School — she noted commencement was the celebration of him completing 12 years of schooling.

“We felt that he should walk with his peers that he grew up with,” Smith said.

She said he will go back to Bel Air next year, and she hopes Jacob will be able to enroll the year after that in Harford County Public Schools’ Future Link Program for high school graduates, ages 18 to 21, who have special needs.

Smith said Jacob has learned vocational skills while at Bel Air High by performing some janitorial duties and shredding paperwork, been part of the Bobcat Choir and a member of the Best Buddies program.

Kathryn Hotem, the now-former president of the school’s Best Buddies chapter, is a member of the Class of 2019. The Bel Air town commissioners honored her in February with a student achievement award.

“She’s been amazing, and she’s made Best Buddies really good,” Smith said of Hotem.

Junior Olivia Dean, who will be chapter president next year, met with the Smith family after commencement. The Forest Hill resident has been Jacob’s Best Buddy since her freshman year and his sophomore year.

Dean said she cried when Jacob crossed the stage. She said he has improved significantly over the years, both in terms of how he communicates with her and his social skills with other students.

“It just helps spread awareness and changes people’s opinions on special needs,” Dean said of Best Buddies.

Graduate Drake Lupus, 18, of Bel Air, also met with the Smiths. He is a member and mentor with the Bobcat Choir and greeted Jacob, his fellow choir member.

Lupus said Jacob has been “a good asset to the school” and even helped other students with special needs.

“It just proves that stereotype, that stigma wrong when he did it by himself,” he said of Jacob completing high school. “It just shows the perseverance that he goes through; I’m just really proud.”

Lupus himself plans to study musical theater at Rider University in New Jersey. He was also in Bel Air’s drama club and had lead roles in school productions such as Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

He said some of the key lessons he learned as a Bel Air student included “how to be myself,” as well as how to “be kind to others and appreciate our differences.”

“I just feel more prepared, entering society and the workforce,” he said.

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