GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — It's that noteworthy time of year for high school seniors. And Thursday, Lighthouse Academy in Grand Rapids will hold a commencement for its graduating students.
This year, 30 of them will walk to receive their diplomas. And, for these graduates, the journey to finishing high school is worthy of special celebration.
"Our students come in with lots of barriers and usually behind in their education," said Heidi Cate, superintendent of integrity educational services for Lighthouse Academy and Hope Academy of West Michigan campuses. "But, this year it's so special because there was extra persistence and resilience needed by our students to complete their credits to earn their high school diploma."
The students at Lighthouse Academy are used to jumping hurdles and navigating barriers in life. Lighthouse Academy has five campuses and offers a unique educational program to roughly 1,200 students. It has educational settings that range from open campus, to residential facilities, and it also has students that are in detained settings in Kent County.
"So, there's really a range. It can go all the way down to second grade. But we typically serve middle schoolers and high schoolers. The high school population is about 70% to 80%, at our various campuses," says Cate.
"They (students) have both social challenges and academic challenges, disruptions to their education, sometimes barriers with housing and food that come up. Their families have challenges, if they do have families. Quite a few of our students are resettled into this country. So, they have that challenge of building a new community and social network here."
That's exactly what 21-year-old Williams Sejour had to do. Sejour was born in Haiti, then moved to Argentina at the age of 12. By the time he was 14, he had set out for the United States. Alone, he was determined to lift himself, and his family abroad, out of poverty.
"Unfortunately, our house caught on fire and life just went upside down for us," he said. "I thought that it was my responsibility to come and see if I can get a better life for us."
The trip to the U.S. took a year. And, ever since Sejour's journey, his life has been filled with challenges and obstacles.
"I've had a lot of struggles, to be honest," he said. "Language was one of my barriers. But the other barriers I had was missing my family and not having them here with me. I was having to be here, myself, as a child. You know, it burned in my heart to know that they were not here with me. I wanted to have that household with family where you can get support and love. It was complicated, challenging, and so many times it would feel as if I wanted to give up."
But the faculty and staff at Lighthouse wasn't about to let that happen. Cate says their approach to education is based on the "whole child" philosophy. As such, the school not only provides academic support, but it has student advocates, school social workers, and transition coordinators to help students 24/7. That approach was hugely beneficial throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Students, "had many different kinds of twists and turns throughout the year," she said. "Yet, continuing, not losing hope and completing those credits was incredible. It was an incredible accomplishment by our students."
In fact, Cate said, this year Lighthouse Academy has more graduates, across all their campus, than it has had in many other years.
"I am so proud of them. I mean before the pandemic we knew they were resilient, but they blew us away. It really showed me what I knew about our students; because of the storms that they've been through--and the barriers--they've really developed that strength inside of them and they have incredible assets to offer the world," she said. "They have that incredible grit and resilience that is needed in today's society."
Sejour is the first in his family to graduate high school. He plans to use that grit to get him through whatever comes next. And, while he may have once struggled with the English language; he now says he has full command of it, making him a multi-lingual graduate who speaks 6 languages.
From here, Sejour plans to continue his pursuit of a career in law enforcement with the Grand Rapids Police Department. He says he is currently enrolled in the pre-Police Academy and is waiting to see if he will be admitted into the full academy.
He credits Lighthouse Academy for giving him a second chance to succeed in life. He says that's a debt he plans to repay.
"Which is to be there for my community and my family and give back to the people," says Sejour.
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