“Today is a day of a new beginning for me,” said Jalia Herring, as she prepared for her graduation from Youth Corps of Atlantic County.
Sitting in her wheelchair making last-minute checks in front of a mirror, the 25-year-old gets emotional as she talks about all she’s overcome to get here.
But on this day, “these are tears of joy,” she said. “It’s not pain, hurt, confusion and sorrow. It’s tears of joy, accomplishment, strength, peace and happiness.”
In the past, this time of year was touched by tragedy.
In 2006, she found out that her father didn’t make her eighth-grade graduation because he had been murdered. She would face his killer in court three years later, when he was sentenced to life in prison.
Then, on June 22, 2006, her brother Sahir McKinney was driving her home from work in Atlantic City when a truck pulled alongside them and opened fire.
McKinney, the target of the violence, was shot multiple times. Two days later, he would walk at his high school graduation. But his sister, struck by a single bullet, wouldn’t walk again.
But she would stay determined.
“Going through it allowed me to see the true strength and beauty in myself,” she said.
“There was no problem too big that she wouldn’t try to tackle in a positive way,” her mother, Kimyelle McKinney, said of Herring just weeks after the shooting. “She always felt like if she couldn’t do something good to find a remedy, she didn’t want to be a part of it.”
She has a plan now. With her diploma achieved, the next goal is a real estate license and an accounting degree. She wants a business degree as well.
“I’m trying to set myself up,” she said. “I’m a very independent person, as I was before this wheelchair.”
Addressing her class Thursday, she reminded them everyone goes through stuff, but that it’s just a test. Everything negative is motivation for positive.
Fellow graduate Brittney Rivera plans to do just that.
The class salutatorian wants to be a social worker, inspired by her own experience with the system and dealing with one who was not good at the job.
“I think it’s easier for kids to relate to someone who’s been through what they have,” she said.
She grew up in Rhode Island, but now lives in Pleasantville with her boyfriend. She found Youth Corps when she came to the One-Stop Career Center in town and met Mona Tally, who told her about the program.
Youth Corps was also a perfect fit for valedictorian Addison Riley-Hernon.
The Galloway Township teen liked that, unlike traditional high school, the Corps offers real-life job training. She leaves knowing how to balance a check book, set up a bank account and understanding finances.
Now, she’s working toward her goal of one day owning her own bakery.
Addressing her fellow graduates, she focused on how they worked together and became their own kind of family.
“We might not have known each other going in, but we’re not going to forget each other,” she said. “You’re always going to remember the people who got you through this.”