Steamboat Springs Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect that the Yampa Valley School is run by the Steamboat Springs School District.
Jackie Thomas embraced 21-year-old Danilo Medina as if he were her son.
“You’re a sweet boy,” she whispered in his ear. “You did it.”
A co-worker at La Cantina, where Medina has worked since he moved to Steamboat Springs five years ago from Mexico, Thomas is as close to a mother as he’s had since he left his parents. He calls her “Momma Jackie.”
And Momma Jackie had tears in her eyes as she saw Medina in a black cap and gown holding his high school diploma on Friday afternoon, an achievement the two weren’t sure would happen after he left Steamboat Springs High School two years ago with only a few credits left.
But a year later, he returned to finish his schooling at the Yampa Valley School.
“I was trying to accomplish my dream,” Medina said. “It was to finish school.
“Now I realize school is important, and you just have to work hard.”
Medina was one of three graduates of the Yampa Valley School, an alternative high school run through the Steamboat Springs School District.
Commencement was held on the lawn of the George P. Sauer Human Services Center under the bright Friday sun.
Medina, Kody Mayhew and Kyle Bolton were honored in a short but sweet ceremony that emphasized the close-knit community and promotion of individuality present at the small school.
“In a bigger school, it’s harder to get to know each student individually,” YVS teacher Jen Lowe said in her commencement address. “You don’t get to see what their strengths are.”
She then detailed the three boys’ personalities as she had gotten to know them, emphasizing the individuality of each of them. But they all had something in common.
“They all follow through,” Lowe said.
Mayhew gave a quick student address — all three of the students were shy, teacher Dan Juba said — but he touched on how YVS was a good fit for him as the crowd of about 40 parents and fellow students cheered him on.
“I want to thank all the teachers because I didn’t like school before I came here,” Mayhew said. “You made me like school again.”
Medina said the school also was great for him, because at Steamboat Springs High School he was a “bad kid” and a negative influence on others.
But in the past year, Juba said Medina, after he finished his final credits last fall, would return to YVS regularly to check on and motivate the other students.
Medina is not sure exactly what lies ahead. He’s considering college, but for now he’ll continue to work at La Cantina and help support his family.
And even if it took an extra few years, he’s proud to finally hold a diploma in his hand.
“It feels good,” Medina said as he walked toward the post-ceremony reception. “It feels that I really made it.”
To reach Nicole Inglis, call 970-871-4204 or email ninglis@SteamboatToday.com