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Graduation Day at BHMA: A Celebration of Realizing Dreams


Dressed in forest green caps and gowns on a cool spring morning, the graduates of the class of 2019 lined up outside before following the procession through the lobby of the Bernon Music Center. As the familiar tune of Pomp and Circumstance filled the performance hall, they marched in behind board members, founders, and staff, and were greeted by loud applause and congratulatory cheers. With only seven individuals—Josiah Alicea, Travis Dobson, Ana Li Harper, Omar Jomaa, Madhav Malhotra, Brandon Marquis, and William Duffy, who graduated the day before––it is a small yet cohesive group that together participated in life skills classes, went on vocational outings, and immersed themselves in music. The May 19th graduation marked their completion of our Two-Year Certificate Program, and also commemorated the twentieth anniversary of BHMA’s founding in 1999. Through the day’s speeches, presentation of certificates, and Franklin Nichols and Justin Scott’s moving performance of “Wind Beneath My Wings,” the ceremony was a joyful celebration of realizing dreams—both on an individual and programmatic level. 

As a hallmark of BHMA’s graduations, students opened the event by delivering their own speeches that reflected on their time in our two-year program—covering everything from personal accomplishments and future goals, to gratitude for those who supported them. Brandon Marquis is a great drummer and rock singer, and he spoke about the variety of skills he acquired, stating “I learned how to be more independent at Berkshire Hillsby taking care of my money, following my own schedule, learning how to talk to staff about different things, and performing in front of an audience.” Ana Li Harper gave an enthusiastic speech that detailed her trips to Big Y, her piano lessons, and her time living in the women’s on-campus apartment; she closed by saying “without this school I would not have become a better person.”William Duffy loves technology and hopes to be a videographer, declaring “I want to work at Berkshire Hills and share my knowledge and experiences with others.” Many graduates will continue at BHMA as part of our Long-Term Independent Vocational Experience (LIVE) Program, where they will focus on obtaining paid employment in the areas of music, vocation, art, or dance. 

In an apt tribute given the twenty-year anniversary, the Visionary Award was presented to four BHMA founders: Thomas Dwyer Jr., Esq, Veronica Ohanian Heath, Laura Wernick, MEd, and Kay Bernon. Each individual was acknowledged and honored for their remarkable contributions in making BHMA a reality—from friendraising and fundraising, to advocacy and legal work. Kay Bernon, introduced as a force of resilience and an incredible connector, delivered the commencement address. Centered on the theme of ikigai, a Japanese word that Bernon described as the reason you get up in the morning, her speech detailed how every person’s ikigai is unique. For her son with Williams syndrome, CB, music has always been his ikigai—allowing him to develop his sense of self and connect with others. Bernon quickly recognized the power of music for individuals with disabilities, and joined with the other founders to build a program where people are celebrated for their abilities and music is the key to other forms of success. It is clear that twenty years later, as BHMA’s sixteenth graduating class sat in the audience, Bernon and the rest of the Founders made the dream of BHMA—and the dreams of all of its past, current, and future graduates—come true. 


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South Hadley, MA 01075

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