TEWKSBURY — Senior year for parents and families of a high school student is an emotional time. It is the end of one journey, and the beginning of another. Expectations run high for celebrations and a chance to bring family and friends together to congratulate the graduate on a job well done.
For this year’s class, however, graduation is going to look a bit different. While the various high schools in the area devise plans for virtual graduation ceremonies and recognitions, community-based efforts are also springing up. As a way to celebrate the class of 2020 and involve residents, one person has spearheaded an effort to help show the kids that their accomplishments are recognized and their graduation is still something to be proud of and celebrated.
Karla Branchaud, a Tewksbury mother of a senior at TMHS, learned of an idea that other towns were using to congratulate seniors. She created a Facebook group titled “Adopt A Tewksbury Senior: Class of 2020.” The group is just for parents of Tewksbury students who are graduating from any high school, including those who are homeschooled.
Student photos and profiles are posted on the page, which sometimes include throwback photos from special times during earlier school years, a bit about the student, their plans for the future, and other inspirational musings. For those not on social media, a friend may create a listing for the student and put their photo and profile up on the page. Then, a community member commits to creating a basket or keepsake for the student which will be delivered to their door.
Branchaud, along with another senior parent, Christine Chesbrough, has been working hard to reach as many families in Tewksbury as possible. Chesbrough is keeping track of students who are posted and adopted, and as of the time of writing, almost 200 students have been listed.
Schools represented so far include Brewster Academy, Phillips Academy, Arlington Catholic, Shawsheen Tech, Lowell Catholic, Central Catholic, Innovation Academy and TMHS.
“Even if a Tewksbury student goes to school somewhere else, we’d like to recognize their graduation,” said Branchaud.
“The outpouring has been overwhelming,” she added, explaining that teachers have made nice comments about students from their elementary school days, friends have posted old school photos, and residents who don’t even have students in the schools have come forward to commit to getting a special gift for the students.
Branchaud said the plan is for baskets to be given to seniors during the first week in June, which would have been the traditional Senior Week for students. Normally filled with group activities, this year’s senior week is going to be bittersweet.
Branchaud said that people have been so supportive and are interested in the different post-high school plans of the students.
“Some students are going into the military; some are going into the trades and some are going to two- or four-year programs,” said Branchaud.
The project, which took off overnight, has also had an additional benefit for the class.
“It’s become a digital yearbook, something really special for the kids,” said Branchaud.
Despite the different high schools the students attend, many were classmates during kindergarten and early elementary years.
Branchaud’s page reads in part “please be mindful that this experience is new for all of us! I started this page to bring some joy for our graduates and am figuring things out as we go! I'm hoping that this will be fun for all involved!”
Branchaud’s son Joey will be attending Colby-Sawyer College in the fall.
Parent reactions have been extremely positive. Sue Panilaitis, whose son Mike Bankowski is attending Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in Amhert said, “Karla is a rock star for setting this up — graduates need a little extra love at this time,” and Lauren Cunningham, whose daughter Megan is going to attend the University of Connecticut in Storrs said, “It is very emotional to see all the love coming from the community and other parents for our seniors.”
Chesbrough, whose daughter Alexia will attend Bentley University in Waltham, acknowledged, “This is tough for all. Like every parent we were so looking forward to seeing our daughter walk across the stage and receive her diploma. She has worked very hard in school. We will still get a picture of our daughter in her gown but it won't be the same. I feel you have to look at the good part of it. I hope at their reunion they can look back at this and remember the positive things about it all.”
“Coronavirus has robbed these kids of a rite of passage, a tradition almost every family member has had but one from which they are excluded,” said Laura Harrington, whose son Ian Tacey will attend the University of Massachusetts - Amherst, but concedes that “everyone's health and safety is clearly the most important concern everyone should have right now, and there is absolutely no way hundreds of people can safely pack in closely for a graduation ceremony.”
Georgia Allen, whose daughter is attending Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida said, “The kindness shown in support of the Class of 2020 is heartwarming! We’re proud of Amaya’s accomplishments but most importantly her character and maturity and how well she has handled the far from ideal circumstances,” a sentiment echoed by community members about all the students in post after post on the page.
Branchaud said if people are not on Facebook, they should contact her at email@example.com and she can work to get the senior profile up online. She encourages friends, neighbors, grandparents, and other family members to get in touch with her so that all Tewksbury graduates may be recognized.