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High schools, others help seniors celebrate amid COVID-19

Ariana Taylor
The Detroit News

On the five-minute car ride to Grosse Pointe North High School's makeshift commencement, it didn't hit Hannah Davis that she was getting ready to graduate. 

When she got out of the car and walked across the school's soccer field to grab her diploma cover, having already received her certificate, it still didn't seem over. 

It wasn't until Davis was walking away from her school's "honor drive" that it finally sunk in. She was done with high school and this would be the only graduation she would get. 

"Everything that I feel like all of us pictured our senior year to be, we only got like a little slither of that," said Davis, 17, who is attending Michigan State University in the fall. "It's difficult for a lot of us to actually feel that closure because that's what senior year is about."

Diane Montgomery, left, of Lathrup Village, English teacher, Cross County and Track coach, and school counselor Milissa (CQ) Pierce, of Grosse Pointe, who is retiring this year, celebrate their graduates.

Like many other high school seniors in Michigan, the realization that traditional celebrations, such as graduation and prom, could not happen was hard for Davis to accept. When the COVID-19 virus swept through the state, it caused an abrupt end to senior year events. 

In an attempt to compensate for lost ceremonies, high schools and organizations around Metro Detroit created provisional events so students could still celebrate their accomplishments. Davis credited her mother, Michelle Davis, assistant principal at Grosse Pointe North, with making the substitute ceremonies as meaningful as possible.

"I know that I haven't had, like, an official graduation, but I really loved the honor drive ... it meant a lot because I know how hard she works to set everything up for us and make it special," she said. 

During the school's "honor drive," a procession of cars rolled from Barnes Elementary to the high school. Once at the school, students got out of the cars one by one, accepted their diploma covers and then posed for professional pictures in their caps and gowns. 

Other high schools in the area had staged virtual graduations, drive-by ceremonies or just simply dropped off lawn signs, yearbooks and cap and gowns to their seniors. 

"I just feel like my senior year was taken away from me. Everything that I was always looking forward to is just gone now," said Isabel Gurganus, 18, a senior at Chelsea High School.

Though the schools are usually the ones to hold senior celebrations, a few nonprofit organizations and small businesses are stepping in to help. 

Donald Hightower, III, of Harper Woods, waves as he enter the high school property.

Raphael Mostyn, the founder of Mostyn Community Development, hosted a virtual graduation on Friday after holding a virtual prom in May. The graduation, open to all Michigan high school seniors who registered, featured speakers such as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, motivational speaker Eric Thomas and author and entrepreneur Shawn T. Blanchard. 

"These events that students experience with their friends, we know they create long-lasting memories," Mostyn said. "We know they're never gonna never forget the pandemic ... but we wanted to put something good in their corner during the pandemic that they also can remember."

Two photography companies also decided to aid in helping seniors creating lasting memories. Stephanie Traynor of Stephanie Traynor Photography in Flushing and Ashley West of Ashley Mae Photography in Port Huron teamed up to create a pay-what-you-can graduation photoshoot. 

Traynor said people can pay $1 or $1 million, though she wouldn't accept the million. It's more on a tipping basis, Traynor said. They service an area that includes Frankenmuth, Flint, Flushing, Bay City, Saginaw and Lansing. 

Students drive past a Grosse Pointe North Class of 2020 group shot.

Each student is offered a 15-minute session and given five digital images of their choice. They encourage students to bring their own cap and gowns and for families to come dressed nicely to participate in photos as well. 

"It's a time to really reflect on all that they've accomplished and get them extremely excited to embark on a new journey," Traynor said. 

"So a lot of them are missing out. And so I feel like this cap-and-gown session can give them a little bit of that back."