BELEN, N.M. (KRQE) – Belen High School’s graduation was shaping up to be a very quiet one with as many as 82 seniors planning to skip the walk at the upcoming commencement because they didn’t have a cap and gown. With the clock ticking, one teacher and city leader were not about to let those seniors kids miss out on the milestone, and rallied the community to pull off a challenge.
“Once you get onto the stage and that diploma is handed to you, it’s such an amazing experience and such a highlight of your whole life,” Belen City Councilor Danny Bernal, Jr. said.
High school graduation is a milestone Bernal, Jr. wants every eligible student to experience. But last week, he and BHS English Teacher Megan Malcolm-Morgan heard that 82 seniors would be missing out on May 18.
“They responded, ‘Well, we didn’t order our caps and gowns in time,'” Malcolm-Morgan explained.
Some students were unsure if in-person graduation would be happening because of the pandemic, and others said they couldn’t afford the cap and gown. It’s something the former Eagle, Bernal, Jr. said he can relate to. “We have some working-class families that sometimes struggle to make ends meet,” he added.
He and Malcolm-Morgan made a lofty goal of raising more than $3,600 online, to buy those seniors the caps and gowns after a difficult year.
“This is a senior class that their junior year, they didn’t have prom,” Malcolm-Morgan said.
In four days, they blew past that mark, raising $6,600 from families in the tight-knit community and even some state lawmakers. The extra funds will be used to help pay for a prom that’s currently planned at the county fairgrounds. Organizers are calling it Operation Footloose.
To help future students, the school is now working with the superintendent to establish a fund to help pay for caps and gowns every year. “It’s the feeling that everybody gets to look the same, be treated the same, experience the same thing,” Malcolm-Morgan said.
The fundraising Facebook group has even led to more donation efforts. A local photographer has offered to take free senior photos for Belen seniors. Others have offered to pay for seniors’ dinners on prom night or host a prom dress exchange.