Graduation from Highland Hemerka's crowning moment
By PORTIA PORTER For the Courier Post June 20, 2008

GLOUCESTER TWP. The 41st commencement at Highland Regional High School was more than just a commencement ceremony for valedictorian Darlene "DJ" Hemerka.

The title of valedictorian didn't come easy for the high school graduate. Her battle with cerebral palsy almost stopped her from achieving her dream.

"I have a confession to make," Hemerka said in her address to fellow graduates. "I've wanted to be valedictorian since the summer before my freshman year."

Hemerka said she had become ill and was in the hospital at one point during her high school career. Because of this, she fell behind in her studies. She started to think that she was insane for wanting to achieve such a high goal and she asked her adviser, Principal Frank W. Palatucci Jr., if he thought the same.

"He said, "You can do anything you want. . . . I truly believe that. You will never know what you can achieve unless you try,' " she said.

Graduate Thomas McNutt shared the title of valedictorian with Hemerka. Palatucci said McNutt was supportive of Hemerka and never acted envious or jealous of the attention she received.

Two hundred and eighty-five students, sharply dressed in pale blue and navy blue graduation gowns, waited patiently for the presentation of their diplomas, given by Director of Curriculum and alumnus Brian Repici.

"Tonight, after the celebratory commencement, as you step off this field, I want you to consider the change it will bring about," Repici said. "Live for justice, live for peace, and embrace its wonders for all humanity."

Shouts of "Yea boy!" and "You did it!" erupted as names were called to receive diplomas. Fog horns went off and balloons floated to unknown destinations as relatives watched their loved ones take the next step into a new life.

Students lined up around the football field to bid one last farewell to the school that had become their home away from home for the last four years.

As mortarboards flew up into the air, tears fell down some faces and others leaped into open arms.

"I'm sad but, I'm happy at the same time", said 18-year-old graduate Michael Sousa.

Sousa plans to attend Camden County College for two years before transferring to a four-year college.

"Our education is never complete", McNutt said. "Never stop learning, never stop questioning, and most importantly . . . never stop dreaming. Never let anyone tell you that you cannot reach your goal, no matter how big it is."

Reach Portia Porter at (856) 486-2401.

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