On the third day of Grade 12 graduation ceremonies in Brandon, a historic first was achieved.
For the very first time, Prairie Hope High School, formerly the Neelin Off-Campus Site, celebrated the achievement of its graduates as an independent entity.
Small groups of graduates and their loved ones attended small-scale ceremonies at the A.R. McDiarmid Civic Complex on Thursday morning and afternoon.
The school’s purpose is to give a second chance to students who were in danger of not completing their studies elsewhere, and that purpose was fulfilled in one of the first graduates to receive their diploma.
"It means a lot because a couple of years ago I didn’t think I’d be alive today," graduate Montana Jackson said.
"I didn’t think I’d be graduating and moving on with the rest of my life, so I’m very proud of myself. I was just going through a really bad time — I was doing lots of hard drugs. I didn’t care about my family, I didn’t care about my education, I didn’t care about anything, so now I’m happy to be in a totally different place in my life."
Talking to the Sun after her ceremony, she said some credit for her recovery is owed to local Tim Hortons franchisee Rhonda Pardy, who paid for Jackson and her boyfriend to go to a self-help seminar called "Choices" in Calgary that changed her life.
"You learn how to deal with anything you’re fighting through in your life on your own and learn how to talk and communicate with people better," she said. "It’s an awesome course and I’m so thankful to Rhonda for sending me."
Pardy said she estimates she has sent 40 people, including her family, to the seminar over the years.
"I saw so much potential in Montana and I wanted to do something to help her see that potential in herself," she said. "And it worked. ... I do believe that’s just the beginning for her as well."
Another person Jackson credits for helping her cross the finish line is Prairie Hope guidance counsellor Tammy Ballingall. Jackson said it made a "huge difference" to have Ballingall watching out for her and pushing her toward graduation.
After the day’s celebrations were over, Ballingall praised Jackson’s initiative in getting her schoolwork done while also working a full-time job.l.
"She was just such a great kid to have around the school," Ballingall said. "If you ask any staff member she had a subject with, they would say the same thing. Just a very polite, kind kid that really just wanted to get it done and learn and worry about her next journey."
Ballingall said she liked the intimate graduation ceremonies the school held this year so much that she hopes they do something similar next year.
Each graduate was allowed to have four visitors accompany them, and Jackson was joined by her sister, boyfriend, mom and dad. Jackson said both parents being there was special for her because they’re divorced.
Jackson isn’t quite sure what’s next for her, but she would like to go to college. To further celebrate her graduation, Jackson is holding a barbecue for family and friends.
Also graduating on Thursday were siblings Blake and Cheyenne Fleury.
"I’m really happy to get (high school) done," Blake said. "I’m proud of myself."
"We’re onto the next step now," Cheyenne said.
Blake said he appreciated that Prairie Hope was able to give him a flexible timetable for his classes so he could work while he completed his studies.
Cheyenne is interested in studying biology in the future while Blake wants to study heavy machine operation at Assiniboine Community College.
Being related, the Fleury siblings were able to combine their guest pool to have eight relatives on hand to watch them graduate.
On Friday evening, the family is gathering at Oak Lake to further celebrate Blake and Cheyenne’s accomplishments.
Ballingall said Prairie Hope still has six students left to graduate today.
» Twitter: @ColinSlark