'Harmony was the best thing that could have ever happened to me'
Despite the dark clouds and pouring rain on Saturday, June 18, a glimmer of hope shined through the Harmony Academy graduation as the school's third cohort of students turned their tassels on Saturday, June 18.
Harmony, which is based in Lake Oswego and the only recovery high school in Oregon , opened in 2019. The school is designed to help students who are recovering from substance use disorders thrive in their academics and their recovery journeys. On Saturday, families and staff gathered on the field behind the school to celebrate the achievements of the graduating seniors. The school has graduated nearly 30 students so far.
Principal Sharon Dursi Martin kicked off commencement with a tribute to the students who faced challenges with resilience and determination.
"We're here to share the victories of 10 beautiful, young people who took action against some pretty big odds," Dursi Martin said. "They showed up in early recovery, they risked hope, they changed. They built an unshakable community of love and they pushed through all the hard things … Because when people act from a place of hope, from a place of defiance of the odds, something different is possible."
Tony Vezina, Harmony co-founder and executive director of 4D Recovery, made a special appearance and spoke about how the conception of the school started from "failure."
In 2016, Vezina decided to shut down 4D's adolescent treatment program services because funding couldn't meet the demand. It was ineffective and sometimes dangerous to push adolescents into an adult-centered recovery continuum, he said.
Yet while making that announcement in a room full of behavioral health treatment providers, he encouraged their support in backing up a solution that could genuinely help Oregonian youth in recovery.
"I steadied my nerves and prepared to present this glimmer of hope shining in the darkness of Oregon's behavioral health universe — and that was the concept of the recovery high school," Vezina said.
Three years later, Harmony opened as Oregon's first jump toward recovery schools. Vezina later said that, despite Oregon still ranking number one in addiction across the United States and dead last in treatment service, the students graduating are examples of progress.
"I can solidly say that we have made progress and it's exemplified in each of you guys," he said. "Recovery takes work, grit, determination, resilience, heartbreak, headache and most importantly, for me, it takes failure after failure after failure. I had to fail over and over again to see my dreams realized, and I know that each and every one of you have experienced the plight I experienced. But like me, even though you failed many times, you did not quit."
Vezina said that the students are the "hope" that the world needs to stay inspired and to let other people know that it is OK to fail, as long as you pick yourself back up again.
"I implore you guys today to let this be one small single step in your recovery journey, and let your story pave the way for more teens to find the courage to fail — but to keep going," he said.
At Harmony, students take regular classes that are taught at any other high school. But they also participate in peer support groups and one-on-one sessions with trained recovery coaches. Math teacher Jake Sweety said that the work students have completed in their education and recovery is inspirational.
"These graduates have shown true grit and determination by finishing a journey that they'll never forget … They've showed up, powered through to reach a goal they might have not thought was possible, supported each other, (made) connections with people and (set) themselves up for successful futures," Sweety said.
Recovery coach and outreach coordinator Jeremy Ralls said that when he thinks about the class of 2022, the word "transformation" comes to mind.
"This part year, these students have had to endure increased racism, horrible resurgence of gun violence and war overseas. Yet still, y'all showed up. With deep admiration, I watched as you guys remained resilient, began to open up and be honest about what you're feeling," Ralls said."Together, you guys continued to strive, you adapted to circumstance in the face of adversity and never once met defeat. But instead, you guys showed greatness. They're here today so we can celebrate their successes. They are the living definition of what it means to transform."
In a sentimental twist to other graduations, the students also took the mic to share a few words about their time at Harmony and how the school had helped them become the person they are today.
Many graduates made emotional speeches, spreading gratitude for their families, staff and friends who never gave up on them as they navigated through their recovery journey.
Graduates like Kohl Britton, shouted out the unique system that Harmony offers students in recovery. Most of the staff are in recovery themselves, and the curriculum is peer-driven, so students recognize they are supported through their recovery.
"I've spent a lot of time feeling completely and utterly alone. (At Harmony) I have found people that are like me, people I can relate to, people that want to change and to work on themselves. That sets an example for me," Britton said. "I'm extremely excited to be moving forward with my life. And with the help of this place, I'm going to be able to do that."
A handful of students spoke about how the school and staff helped them see their full potential. Owen Bragg shared how before Harmony he was surrounded by unsupportive people who didn't want what was best for him.
"I thought my hopes and dreams were difficult to keep in my environment. Harmony helped me find me new hopes," Bragg said.
In the fall, Bragg will head to Portland Community College with plans to transfer to a university to finish his education in psychology. He said he would use his degree to help other youth in recovery.
"I want to help those who struggle with similar experiences as mine, because I wouldn't want to have anybody go through life alone like I did," Bragg said.
Despite the differences in each of the student speeches, they all included how much Harmony has changed their lives.
"Coming to Harmony was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. Life no longer felt unmanageable and I realized people do want what's best for me," said graduating senior Emily Rask. "Through many relapses and extremely hard times, this community has never given up on me and I love each and every one of you."
Congratulations to the graduating class of 2022:
Anthony Buzzelli, Astrid Evelyn Howells, Emily Rask, Kincaid Michael Smith, Kohl Britton, Leah Forral, Owen Bragg, Sammy Ems, Sumner Gray Zody, Zayden Johnson.
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