Phoenix Suns & Hope Academy Deliver One-Of-A-Kind Graduation Surprises To Extraordinary High School Students Across The Valley

For all of us, high school graduation is a seminal moment that dually represents all the hard work and commitment necessary to reach that milestone along with the promising start of a new chapter in our lives.

For students at Hope College and Career Readiness Academy in Phoenix, their commencement ceremony means so much more.

The institution was created in order to serve those whose academic needs are not otherwise being met in traditional educational settings, and therefore Hope Academy places a special emphasis on celebrating their graduates given that it signifies their perseverance to overcome immense personal challenges in both life and in the classroom.

When the coronavirus pandemic unfortunately forced Hope College and Career Readiness Academy to cancel their standard commencement ceremony for the Class of 2020, the school’s students, teachers and administrators were equally devastated.

During these unparalleled times, the Phoenix Suns partnered with Hope Academy and developed a whimsical plan to provide intimate, heartfelt and imaginative graduation ceremonies for students, right outside their doorstep at home.  All told, reps from the Suns & Hope Academy delivered diplomas, along with their deepest congratulations, to 18 graduates this week as part of the a one-of-a-kind celebration.

Each mini graduation began with a loud knock on the front door by the Suns Gorilla before students emerged to find the Orange Carpet rolled out for their very own commencement ceremony as their families, Suns and Hope Academy officials, and even some curious neighbors proudly looked on with excitement.

Suns broadcaster Tom Leander emceed each ceremony, while Maricopa County School Superintendent Steve Watson shared some special words of encouragement with the students during this momentous occasion. 

Among the graduates in Hope College and Career Readiness Academy’s Class of 2020 was an impressive young man named Woody Harris, who shared his excitement about being able to experience his high school graduation, no matter how unconventional the ceremony may have been.

“I know that there are people out there who really care,” said Harris. “There are people out there who want to hear your story and want to see you succeed.”

Woody was raised by a single mother of eight kids on the south side of Chicago, but moved to Phoenix with his mom and younger siblings during middle school in order to escape rampant gun violence in the city.  The tipping point came when Woody was robbed at gunpoint for $14 on the school bus at the age of 12.

After relocating to the Valley before he was set to begin 7th grade, Woody and his family were really enjoying their new chapter in the desert, until a series of vision tests revealed a harrowing diagnosis: Woody had a brain tumor. 

Understandably beside himself at first, Woody eventually summoned the strength, both physically and mentally, to beat the odds and finish middle school. 

The next few years presented a new set of challenges for the family. Chief among them was the heartrending death of Woody’s older brother, who was shot and killed back in Chicago.

Woody was already struggling with his transition to high school. The tragedy left him broken and devastated, and he stopped attending classes for more than three months.

According to Woody, everything changed when he had a dream about his brother and realized that he needed to persevere and stay strong in order to make his brother and his mother proud. With a renewed vigor to earn his high school diploma, Woody soon discovered Hope Academy and immediately knew it was the right place for him. 

After withstanding more heartbreak and overcoming more daunting obstacles at his age than some people endure in an entire lifetime, Woody officially became the first male in his family to graduate high school on Thursday night.

While I’m sure it wasn’t the celebration he envisioned a few months ago, the Suns and Hope Academy were privileged to host Woody’s richly deserved commencement ceremony.  Most importantly, his mother, siblings and neighbors all stood behind him beaming with pride.

There’s no doubt that his older brother was there, too.