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Citizen of the Week: Kelli Wyatt

The middle school teacher started a Facebook group that has connected 600 high school seniors with “adopters” to help them celebrate their graduation—and raise money for college expenses

The middle school teacher started a Facebook group that has connected 600 high school seniors with “adopters” to help them celebrate their graduation—and raise money for college expenses

When Covid-19 struck and schools closed, high school seniors lost many of the milestones we associate with growing up. Gone were school traditions like prom and senior skip days. Graduation parties and commencement ceremonies have had to either move online or they have been cancelled entirely. 

In an attempt to support high school seniors, people started posting photos from their own proms and high school graduations as part of the social media trend “Senior Photo Challenge.” 

Kelli Wyatt, founder of Adopt a High School Senior 2020

Kelli Wyatt, a Philadelphia middle school teacher and literacy specialist at Kenderton Elementary, saw the photos on her Facebook timeline, and was moved—but not in the way the project intended.

“How does that really support them?” Wyatt wondered. “How does showing them something that we had that they’re currently losing, show support?” 

Instead, Wyatt—inspired by a Florida Facebook group she came across—launched Adopt a High School Senior 2020, to connect seniors with Philadelphians who want to do more than just post their photos. The group lets parents post photos and short descriptions about where their children went to high school and what their plans are for after graduation. 

Members then comment or message the parents to adopt theDo Something student, and send cards, small gifts or money to congratulate them. In addition to cards and money, students have received gift cards, stuffed animals, balloon arrangements and items off of their college gift registries. One girl has received an item off of her registry every day since joining the group. 

The group started in mid-April when Wyatt texted several friends that she knew had high school seniors to see if they would be interested in joining a group where people could show support for their students. Though Wyatt’s two children are not yet seniors in high school, as a teacher for 21 years, she knew how important graduation is for students.  

By the end of the project’s first day, April 19th, 100 parents had posted about their seniors and 3,000 people had joined. Since then, the group has grown to almost 7,000 members, about 600 of whom are parents or family members of current high school seniors. Another 7,000 people are waiting to join the group. It grew so quickly, Wyatt soon had to add questions to screen potential members to slow down the process of people joining. 

Wyatt did not start the group with the intention of raising money, but she says people soon began reaching out to ask how they could donate to support the seniors. So she created a fund for the group that has so far raised over $27,000 in scholarship money for the students. Some of that she has used to purchase and give away supplies, such as laptops, that students may need. The rest has been given out to students as scholarships.   

Now it has grown beyond the Philadelphia area and includes members from at least 10 other states, including California, Texas, New York and Florida.    

Wyatt has also tried to recreate some of the celebrations seniors have missed since schools closed and shelter-in-place orders started in March. On National College Signing Day on May 1, Wyatt created a series of games and video and photo challenges that seniors and their families could participate in. Parents posted photos and videos to announce where their kids were going to college. Some of the students even learned popular TikTok dances and posted them to the group as part of their announcement. 

Custom HaloLater in the day, Wyatt organized an “I, Spy” game, posting a prompt like, “I spy a senior with a college acceptance” or “I spy a senior with a college globe” and parents posted photos of their senior with the object. Wyatt then randomly selected from those students to give away prizes, like a $25 Amazon gift card or a $250 scholarship to purchase books for school. 

“It just created that fun for them,” Wyatt says.  “A few kids even reported back to their parents that this was better than a regular signing day.” 

Kensington mother Cherron McCutchen says that participating in Wyatt’s Facebook has helped her two seniors maintain a little bit of hope during the pandemic. She was one of the first parents Wyatt reached out to when she started the group. 

“I have seen how this pandemic has taken what is supposed to be one of the most memorable years of their life, their senior year: No prom, no graduation walk, they haven’t seen their friends in months and they aren’t sure when they will see them again,” McCutchen says. “This was a major blessing to our family.”

Both of McCutchen’s seniors have been adopted and have received “some college swag” from the alumni of the schools they’re planning to attend—her son to Indiana University of Pennsylvania and her daughter to Hampton University.  Her son has also received a $1,000 scholarship towards his college tuition through participation in the group. McCutchen has adopted six other seniors herself, as well.

“Regardless of what’s going on in the world people still want to do good things for people,” Wyatt says. “The group got this far because so many people chimed in. Obviously, I couldn’t do it by myself.”

In addition to celebrating high school seniors, Wyatt now uses the group to post scholarship opportunities, virtual college tours and other resources that might make students post-high school journeys easier. Parents made connections with others who have students going to the same college, and several seniors have met future classmates they want to room with in college.

Several adopters have reached out to provide mentorship and support to students as well. One adopter who works for a local radio station interviewed a student who’s interested in pursuing a degree in communications. Another adopter who’s a Millersville University alumn reached out to students who plan on attending her alma mater to offer herself as a resource.  

“Regardless of what’s going on in the world people still want to do good things for people,” Wyatt says. “The group got this far because so many people chimed in. Obviously, I couldn’t do it by myself.”

East Oak Lane resident Monica Gibbs joined the group after a Read Morefriend saw a post she wrote about her teenage sister, a 2020 high school senior, and invited her to join. Gibbs posted about her sister in the group, adopted two seniors of her own and contributed to the group’s scholarship fund. She said she loves reading the stories parents post about their children.   

“Reading the student bios in the group gives me a lot of hope for the future of our city. As a lifelong Philly resident and a School District of Philadelphia graduate, I am proud to see so many students from our area striving for greatness,” Gibbs says. 

Gibbs, who was a first generation college student, also appreciates that the group provides a space for seniors who are not going to a traditional four-year college to celebrate the end of their academic career. 

“One of my favorite things about this group is that it’s not just for the honor students,” says Gibbs. “It’s for the entire class of 2020. Whether you are on your way to college, trade school, the military, or to the workforce, this group is honoring your accomplishment.”

College enrollment rates for Philadelphia high schoolers are as low as 15 percent in some schools and about one third of Philadlephians only receive a high school education or the equivalent. Parents who have students planning on joining the military, attending technical schools and those who are unsure of their future plans have all posted in the group.  

“For many students, this is the conclusion of their academic experience. There won’t be another graduation, or other school parties,” Gibbs says. “One of my favorite things about this group is that it’s not just for the honor students. It’s for the entire class of 2020. Whether you are on your way to college, trade school, the military, or to the workforce, this group is honoring your accomplishment.”

Wyatt says that the level of the support the group has received was completely unexpected. The group is currently still taking new members and working towards the goal of raising $30,000 in scholarship funds for students and parents continue to post new seniors for adoption nearly every day. Wyatt continues to post in the group multiple times a day to help keep track of all the new seniors and adopters and remind everyone of the group’s rules. 

On Memorial Day, she ran another I, Spy game for seniors and their parents. When she’s not focused on teaching her own students remotely, she’s working to manage the group so that high school seniors can feel special even during a pandemic.   

“I never expected all of this to come out of it, but the momentum and just the support of the village we’ve created, and the response from the kids, like all of them, has been very good,” Wyatt says.

Samaj Schell, who attends Freire Charter High School, and Samone Schell, who attends Parkway Northwest High School for Peace and Social Justice.

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