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Hermon-Dekalb graduate celebrates in a big way

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DEKALB - Emily J. Peters’s journey to the stage to receive her high school diploma wasn’t an easy one.

Ms. Peters, 18, was diagnosed at birth with cerebral palsy, a condition that left her nearly blind and confined to a wheelchair.

“She was born 10 weeks premature and weighed under two-and-a-half pounds,” her mother, Sandra M. Bigelow, said. “In order to save both of our lives, she had to be born early or we were both going to die.”

Because of her disabilities, Ms. Peters was given the option to stay in school until she reaches 21. But she surprised her mother when said she was ready to take the plunge into adulthood with the rest of her classmates.

“I wanted to,” she said. “I want to be treated like an adult. Plus, the food was not so great.”

Ms. Bigelow said her daughter’s decision was not one she would have made.

“Whether your child has developmental disabilities or not, it’s difficult to let them go off and make their own decisions,” she said. “You’ve got to have faith that you’ve given them the love, the support and your trust to help them make their own decisions. I feel proud and hopeful for her.”

Although Ms. Peters attended classes at Ogdensburg Free Academy and St. Lawrence-Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services Northwest Technical Center, Ogdensburg, she got a diploma from Hermon-DeKalb Central School, her home district.

At her graduation, classmates, teachers and administrators happily accommodated her. Classmate Clarisa M. Davis wheeled Ms. Peters on and off stage, and teacher’s aide Melody Burnet helped turn the tassel on her cap.

She was met with a thunderous applause from the audience when her name was called.

“I was proud of her peers and of the staff for the way they included her,” Ms. Bigelow said. “It took a lot of people planning and putting the pieces in place so that she could participate in the ceremony.”

As a way of saying thank you, Ms. Bigelow decided to invite everyone in the community who played a role in her daughter’s education to her graduation party at the DeKalb Fire Hall.

“I can’t go anywhere with her without people coming up to her and saying hello and not having a clue as to who they are,” Ms. Bigelow said. “This whole community — this whole county — has been a part of her education. She has touched so many of them. I just wanted to say thanks.”

Ms. Bigelow decided to place an ad in the newspaper inviting the community to attend the graduation party. Close to fifty people, including family relatives, friends and teachers, attended.

Her daughter knew all of them, she said.

Friends even wrote notes on poster board congratulating Ms. Peters on her accomplishments.

“I am so full of pride, it’s overflowing from my eyes,” she said with tears in her eyes.

Following her graduation from high school, Ms. Peters said she would like to continue her education.

She will be taking acting classes as part of St. Lawrence NYSARC’s Community Arts program, Canton, volunteering at the Potsdam Humane Society and taking classes as part of the Transitions program at St. Lawrence NYSARC, where she will learn to balance a checkbook, cook, clean and use a debit card. Her goal is to get a part-time job.

Despite all her challenges, Ms. Peters said she is not worried about the future.

“Nothing is going to stop me.”

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