CAMDEN, NJ — Senior year of high school might not be going exactly as Dahjmere Reddick had planned.
Recent health complications for his mom have meant Reddick, one of five children, needed to pick up more responsibility in the single-parent home. On Wednesday night, he sat by her side while she began recuperation from heart surgery.
Just months earlier, Reddick dealt with the aftermath of a tree falling on his house from a tornado sweeping through the area.
But the Camden High School senior hasn't wavered from his positive outlook.
He is known to always have a smile despite many struggles possibly under the surface, said David McKee, school dean of culture and climate. It's part of what makes Redick "one of the most mature young men" that McKee has come across in his three years in his position.
Reddick graduates this month from the century-old school, a place he was told since middle school was only bad news. He bucked that stigma, carving out a prominent place on the Mighty Marching Panthers Band as a tuba player. He will continue to do so this fall at Allen University in Columbia, S.C.
"Life is really hard; it does throw you a lot of curveballs," said Reddick, who plans to study music education and become a teacher or band director. "But I've been staying strong, staying in school. Everything's been good."
And that's just his story. Reddick was one of 25 college-bound students from the Camden City School District (CCSD) whose examples of perseverance through unimaginable circumstances brought smiles and tears to attendees of the Sixth Annual Remarkable Graduates ceremony on Thursday night.
The selected seniors took to the stage at Camden County College to accept a number of certificates and gifts, some geared toward helping with school costs. Each student received a laptop and an annually-renewable $1,000 scholarship from Subaru of America, a $50 gift card from the Rotary Club of Camden, and an additional gift card from the South Jersey Federal Credit Union.
"Celebrating resilience and marking the future knowing that we can do anything that we set our minds to is what this event is all about," said Katrina McCombs, CCSD superintendent, addressing the crowd.
Before receiving their gifts, the students accepted admiration from educators in recognition of their inspiring dedication.
Temptation to drugs and crime. Illness. Foster placement. Loss of immediate family. Homelessness. Absentee parents.
The group of students — from Pride Academy, Brimm Medical Arts, Gateway to College, Woodrow Wilson, Big Picture Learning Academy, Creative Arts Morgan Village, and Camden High — overcame the type of tragedy and obstacles that others face over an entire lifetime.
One after another described how school kept them focused or pulled them back from giving up.
Camden resident Michael Douglass told the group to keep powering through the tough times, something he didn't do until a wake-up call was needed. A product manager at ResinTech Inc., Douglass shared his story of redemption, a rallying message at events across the city of late.
He spent 15 years in and out of the prison system beginning at a young age. Hoping to turn things around, Douglass was given a chance at ResinTech more than a decade ago. He has since turned a temporary job into a position that oversees 40 employees. But he recalled "playing catch up" to friends from his early years.
"As I stand here and think back on all the things I've done, I wish that I would've had some sort of mentor program to get involved in, somebody to steer me in the right direction," Douglass said. "I'm mad at myself sometimes that it took me so long to get my head on straight. But it was all worth it in the end for me. The end result is me standing here with all of you."
Local volunteers from different career backgrounds will serve as mentors for the graduates to lean on as they head to college. Schedules of suggested check-in points were provided.
For Reddick, his mentor is Brian Gregg, coordinator of school culture and climate for the district.
Because of his role, Gregg was aware that mentors were being sought out for the program. He threw his name into the mix, someone not too far removed from the college experience.
Gregg, a 2016 graduate from Rutgers–Camden, can offer advice on the early indecision of weighing different career options and figuring out a path.
"I know when people need some extra support," said Gregg, who will be a first-time program mentor. "I think sometimes it's just helpful, especially when going away somewhere in a new environment. It's helpful just to have someone to bounce ideas off of."
Still a week from his getting high school diploma, Reddick already looks forward to the prospect of returning to the area and offering support to future graduates. He's seen what holding steady in the face of hardships will do.
"You can never give up on your dreams," Reddick said. "Use your talent and never give up."
2019 Remarkable Graduates
Dr. Charles Brimm Medical Arts
Ayricca Brown, Maia Cone, Sierra Hernandez, Ni'Asia Moore
Gateway to College
Janessa Rodriguez, Tanaya Queensbury
Soar Academy at Woodrow Wilson
Woodrow Wilson High School
Dylan Lugo, Jasmine Melendez, Ras Niger, Yanysia Rodriguez, Naiem Simmons
Big Picture Learning Academy
Justus Allison, Kihirha Coleman, Devonta Leavy, Whynnonna Sanabria, Iris Vargas
Creative Arts Morgan Village Academy
Jania Bates, Zhane Brown, Jamal Frazier, Kyarah Taylor
Camden High School
Mariah Burns, Roberto Lugo-Rios, Brianna Miles, Dahjmere Reddick