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No Prom, No Graduation: Virtual Therapy Helps Colorado High School Seniors, Parents Cope

KUNC Composite Illustration

Platte Valley High School senior Teya Hawkins holds up her blue and white letter jacket. On one side is a patch with the letters "PV." There are several athletic and academic pins on it.

"This is knowledge bowl, this is softball, this is state cheer, this just cheer and then academics." she said.

Throughout high school, the 18-year-old played three sports a year, in the fall, winter and spring. But that streak was broken when this year's tennis season was canceled due to COVID-19.

"I think losing tennis was like super, super hard because two of my best friends are on that team," Hawkins said.

Platte Valley is a small school, so Hawkins competed on the team of another, larger Weld County high school. Her teammates go to different schools.

"We all meet for tennis every year and we play our hearts out," she said. "That was really hard not being able to see them all the time like we usually do, and we have a great relationship."

Credit Melissa Hawkins
Platte Valley High School senior Teya Hawkins poses with her graduation cap and letter jacket. Her spring tennis season was canceled due to the coronarivus.

Hawkins and thousands of other students are in same boat. They are missing out on major senior milestones, including final theater performances, athletic ceremonies, senior ditch day, prom and graduation.

"Historically, we as a society view as these huge tangible moments of victory and adulthood and transition that are just so symbolic and powerful," said Jennifer Trinkner, a school-based therapist at North Range Behavioral Health.

North Range Behavioral Health in Greeley partners with seven school districts in Weld County. In April, they created Coffee with a Counselor on Facebook Live. The sessions are free, quick and informal and designed to help people cope with the pandemic.

But Trinkner and her colleagues soon realized that high school seniors and their families are in a unique position.

"They've just been robbed of those experiences," Trinkner said. "I think it's leaving a lot of families and students questioning, 'How to I process this? How do I move forward with this?'"

Coffee with a Counselor: Graduation Edition was launched this month to better serve these populations. Trinkner leads the four-week event and each week there are two sessions, one focusing on seniors and the other on caregivers.

The first two weeks covered grief and loss while providing self-care and coping skills. The following sessions focus on preparing seniors and their families for the next chapter, college and the workforce.

"I think it's important primarily so that families and students know that they're not alone in this," she said. "They're not the only family that's struggling, they're not the only senior that's really upset by these losses."

Elizabeth LaRue and her son, Creighton Anthony LaRue, live in Denver. Anthony recently graduated from East High School without a ceremony.

"We had a big graduation party planned. We had family coming in from out of town. We bought 15 extra graduation tickets," Elizabeth LaRue said. "We were planning a big graduation vacation in Costa Rica. Obviously, you know literally none of that is happening."

LaRue said she, her husband and older son are supporting Anthony the best they can.

Credit Elizabeth LaRue
Denver East High School senior Creighton Anthony LaRue poses with his mom Elizabeth LaRue. They canceled his graduation party due to COVID-19.

"He was very disappointed about prom," she said. "There's things that I know that he's missing out on that he probably doesn't realize he's missing out on, like the yearbook signing."

In addition to that, Anthony never got to say goodbye to his classmates. School was canceled for the year during spring break.

"Because of that I'll never like get to you know, I guess forward my thanks to them," he said. "Or just like let them know that I care that they're a human."

Anthony and his best friend had an ongoing tradition. Every semester, after their last final, they would finish up the academic term with breakfast.

"We were so looking forward to like the final, the breakfast, you know the one that like really closed it all off," he said. "We never got that."

It is an anticlimactic way to end high school he said, but he's got the support of his friends and family. Anthony is keeping it all in perspective.

"It's not the end all be all. You got another, you know, 60, 70 years of (really) amazing, awesome experiences," he said. "Try to take this one in stride and just enjoy what's happening for what it is."

While Anthony LaRue, his family and high school senior Teya Hawkins haven't watched Coffee with a Counselor: Graduation Edition, the Facebook Live sessions have received almost 2,000 views from students and parents with the same issues.

Becky Wyperd, program director of Outpatient Youth and Family services for North Range Behavioral Health, believes these sessions have helped to destigmatize therapy for people who might be on the fence about counseling or uncomfortable with an individual session.

"It's an unusual, amazing opportunity for students and individuals to sort of look in and see what it's all about without having to necessarily be there in person," Wyperd said.

Trinkner will continue to host the live sessions through the end of May. Afterwards the videos will remain on North Range Behavioral Health's Facebook page to provide guidance as seniors close this life chapter and move on to the next.

The “American Dream” was coined in 1931 and since then the phrase has inspired people to work hard and dream big. But is it achievable today? Graduating from college is challenging, jobs are changing, and health care and basic rights can be a luxury. I report on the barriers people face and overcome to succeed and create a better life for themselves and their families.
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