If one mantra can describe the year for a group of five Waco Independent School District students in this year’s graduating class, it’s this: perseverance in the face of doubt, their mentors said.

The Cove, a nonprofit group working with the district to help students experiencing homelessness, held its first graduation celebration Tuesday since it opened in the fall. Though only two of the four students graduating this weekend could attend the big moment, all were recognized during a special catered dinner and awards ceremony that also served to thank The Cove’s employees, mentors, volunteers and other students.

“There’s not a single kid I don’t have in this room that this isn’t their mantra. If you tell them they can’t do it, they’ll just buck up and make sure they do. And, oh, thank God, because they do,” The Cove executive director Teri Holtkamp said. “We’re so proud of each and every one of you.”

Students graduating this weekend include Rachel Freeman, Leslie Hernandez, Mariya Cavazos and Mariah Shaw. Another student, Kelia Kelly, graduated in December, Holtkamp said. Even more are expected to graduate later this year, in August and December, Holtkamp said.

Tuesday’s celebration just proves The Cove’s success, board member Dave Brennan said. Overall, Waco ISD has about 1,600 students classified as homeless or unaccompanied youth — those who don’t have an official legal guardian and often bounce from one location to another for shelter. The Cove aims to help more than 200 Waco ISD high school students, more than 90 of whom are unaccompanied youth. In its first full year, The Cove has served 60 unaccompanied youths in some capacity, Holtkamp said.

“This is a hard, hard business because of how intensive the work is,” Brennan said. “So much of the funding mechanism out there is after quantity, not quality, and this is a long, long-term progression with these kids to get them not just through high school, but the right fundamentals to get them to where we want them to go. And that’s higher education.”

The center is not set up to shelter students overnight. From 4 to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday, students vetted by Waco ISD can have access to hot showers and laundry facilities, snacks and a family-style dinner, as well as counseling, medical and hair-cutting services, case management and more. The Cove operates largely on in-kind donations, and these students wouldn’t have made it this far without the support of the community, Brennan said.

“These kids intimidate me,” he said. “The challenges they face and the fact they’re still trying to get an education moves me every time I think about it. I had it easy, I had parents. But these kids were put in a situation where they’re homeless, and I’m not sure I could handle that. They’ve got my respect.”

The two graduates who were able to attend the ceremony, Rachel Freeman and Mariah Shaw, will start school at McLennan Community College together next year.

Freeman is quick to correct anyone who says she is merely “aiming” to get her doctorate and become a drug and alcohol counselor. She knows she’ll accomplish that goal, she said.

“It brings joy to me to know I can make all my people happy and bring a smile to their faces. It makes me happy that I actually finished it when I thought that I wouldn’t,” Freeman, 19, said. “And there were a lot. My attendance was so bad, my grades were looking low at the beginning of the year. Boy, I was trying to graduate. I don’t want to do it all over again. I was just trying to get it done. But I’m not trying anymore. I did it.”

Before September, Freeman wasn’t even enrolled in school. She had bounced from place to place in South Texas after family tragedy and hardship took over her earlier high school years, she said earlier this year. She lost an uncle and grandmother in one year, which left her in an unstable home environment. This ultimately led her to a hard fight against a cocaine addiction, which landed her in a rehab center, she said.

Freeman was originally supposed to graduate in 2016, she said. This year, she landed a job and even earned a surprise $500 scholarship. And like others in her graduating class, she gets to share the worry of whether she’ll trip and fall as she walks across the stage at Saturday’s Waco High School graduation, she said.

“It’ll be good to see Shaw at MCC, you know? I’m going to be there to encourage her, and I hope she does the same for me,” Freeman said. “If she falls off, I’ll be there to pick her up. We got in it together. We’re going to finish it together. We’ve got things to do, so we’re going to get them done.”

Shaw, inspired by Freeman’s fighting passion, said her journey took courage, strength and support from The Cove’s volunteers and mentors. Also 19, she’s trying to live day by day and just landed an apartment, a solid roof over her head that is her own, she said. She is graduating from Waco ISD’s Brazos High School Credit Recovery Center and will go on to be a nurse, she said.

“I was homeless whenever I started coming to The Cove. I came from being on the streets, trafficked and everything. But I motivated myself to go my own way and everything and figure out things on my own,” Shaw said with a case manager by her side. “I don’t know how I got out of that situation. I guess it was faith. I went to church, and I had a couple of people that took me in and just loved me and encouraged me to keep pushing forward and not let that bring me down.”

Shaw did not want to expand further on her story. She is focused on the new future in front of her, she said.

“I’m from Waco. I moved quite a bit, to several different states like Kentucky and to Missouri, but I’m originally from here,” Shaw said. “It feels good (to be back in Waco). I have to learn to let people who love me be there for me, but being back is the main thing that’s kept me here, the love from all these people here.”

The Cove is expected to help even more students next year and to be a resource for students needing a support system to bridge the gap between high school and higher education, Holtkamp said. The nonprofit group will have another graduation celebration at the end of next year for everyone who crosses the stage between now and then, she said.

Shaw is looking forward to becoming the person who takes care of others, she said. Whether they’re sick, sad, lost, discouraged or confused, she wants to be there, she said. And she hopes she is setting an example for the peers who might be following behind her, coming from their own difficult circumstances.

“I love all these kids, regardless of whether I know every one of them. I love them because they took the first step to come to (The Cove) and let them love them,” Shaw said. “It’s going to get tough, but I encourage them to stay in school and not to give up. There’s going to be times where things feel like it’s just coming after you, but just keep going.”

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