CBNNews.com -- VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. -- This was not your typical high school graduation. This service was different.
The celebration had all the makings of a graduation service: pomp, circumstance and crowds of happy family and friends. But it was different because Open Campus is an alternative public school.
CBN News had the wonderful opportunity to attend the graduation ceremony for Open Campus Public School in Virginia Beach, Va.
The school serves as a model for helping at risk students complete their high school education. So for these students to make it to graduation day is pretty significant.
As the 138 graduates donned blue caps and gowns, you could see the sense of pride in their smiles, and rightfully so. Each of them have incredible stories of triumph in the face of overwhelming adversity. And they don't mind telling the world about the trials they have overcome to reach graduation day and to finally receive their high school diploma.
Perhaps no one was more excited than graduate Carlton Jones. Jones dropped out of high school in 1986. Before quitting school, he was a budding basketball player.
"I had offers to play Division I basketball," Jones said
Because of instability and turmoil in his home, Jones left school. He entered the workforce as a laborer. It was something that only required an eight grade education. But the realization that he needed to finish school hit him hard one day when he was turned down for a supervisory position because he lacked a diploma.
"I knew that I had to go back," he said.
Jones is 41 and is proud to be among the high school graduating class of 2008.
"For 20 years I had this void in my life because I didn't have a high school diploma, but tonight that void has been filled," Jones said.
For 19-year-old graduate Brandon Clarke, tragedy struck hard and fast.
Two years ago Brandon was an innocent bystander during a random, drive by shooting in his neighborhood. He was shot in the spine. The bullet left him paralyzed from the waist down and wheelchair-bound for the rest of his life. Faced with rounds of painful physical therapy, not to mention the emotional scars, Brandon could have easily given up on returning to high school, much less finishing.
But he says he hung in there for a reason.
"I was just determined to do it for myself and my younger sisters," Brandon said.
Brandon's mother, Cynthia Clarke, is a single mother of eight. "He was never mad or angry at the guys who did this to him," she explained.
And how does she feel about Brandon's accomplishment?
"There are no words. It was hard. I raised Brandon and my other kids by myself. It is a blessing," she said.
Norfolk, Va. native Sheena Farrow agrees. Her 18-year-old daughter Shequoia Farrow was among 2008 graduating class from Open Campus.
"It feels wonderful. It's a blessing. There were days she didn't want to go, but I encouraged her that she could do it," she said.
Shequoia's 14-year-old sister now sees her big sister differently, "she's my role model," she said.
Principal Joshua Darden spoke at the graduation ceremony. He encouraged the graduates to keep dreaming even bigger dreams.
"You are an awesome group," he told them. "You have overcome many hardships to be part of this celebration. Don't let anything or anyone diminish your dreams. Never be afraid to take the best shot at your dreams."
After the speeches, awards and handing out of the diplomas, many of these graduates said that getting to this night was not easy. But to experience the joy of hearing their name called, the applause of their friends and loved ones, and most of all receiving their high school diploma was well worth all of the pain.