After 14 years as classmates and friends in Southern Westchester BOCES programs, Jesus Popoca and Karen Garcia-Tobon received their graduation certificates in a June 17 ceremony at Tappan Hill School that parents and friends watched via Zoom.
Tappan Hill Principal Phyllis Rizzi congratulated the graduates, who held hands as they stood next to her. Karen began attending SWBOCES in 2005, and Jesus started in 2008.
“Over the years, Karen and Jesus have formed a strong attachment and friendship, as you can see,” Ms. Rizzi said. “They genuinely care for each other and look to each other during daily classroom activities. They have a mutual supportive relationship.”
While at Tappan Hill, Karen loved adaptive gym and participated in sports, including basketball and track. She enjoyed art as well as dancing with Jesus through SWBOCES’ partnership with the Westchester Music Conservatory.
Jesus had many vocational jobs at Tappan Hill that he initiated daily on his own, such as helping classmates clean up and delivering lunches. He likes to play the guitar and watch movies. He also received a medal for walking more than 80 miles this year for the Achilles Kids program.
Both students participated in Volunteer New York! and enjoyed social groups with mentors from the local Arc community, Ms. Rizzi said.
“We are proud of our 2021 graduates,” she said. “We’re equally proud of the staff, who have done a wonderful job with these young people, and we wish them the best in the future.”
Classmate Christopher Thompson wrote a congratulatory note that teacher Erroll Rivera read for him. Chris met Jesus and Karen when he was 15.
“Friendship is the hardest thing in the world to explain. It’s not something you learn in school,” he wrote. “But if you haven’t learned the meaning of friendship, you haven’t learned anything. You’re great friends, guys, and I love you guys.”
Mr. Rivera, who teaches students in Tappan Hill’s Multiply Disabled Program, was emotional as he recounted how much Jesus and Karen learned and thrived at the school.
He called Karen “an amazing, amazing young lady” who is detailed in everything she does and “follows our program to the T. She makes sure that everything is followed and if we forget anything, she reminds us of what we have to do.”
Mr. Rivera also praised Karen for her resiliency. With COVID, she was on a hybrid schedule for in-school and remote learning, and she adapted her schedule when Tappan Hill went to five days of in-person learning.
He spoke about learning from Jesus. “I can only say that he has taught me. It’s supposed to be the other way around,” he said.
“We do a lot for the multiply disabled population at BOCES and as he was growing within our program and we learned and discovered his voice and the appropriate equipment that BOCES provided, that White Plains schools provided, he quickly caught on to how he can communicate with his friends, family and students and staff,” Mr. Rivera said. “He continues to learn how to access his communication device to request his wants, to request his needs, and to also chat.”
After the ceremony, the students and staff celebrated with a cake that had a graduation cap and two blue balloons on it.