Driven To A Rite Of Passage

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Following the car parade through the village, recent graduates gather for a photo. (Photos by Frank Rizzo)

Westbury finds different ways to celebrate Class of 2020

How do you recognize one of life’s milestones during this time of pandemic?

Gaudenzio Cortez (left) congratulates graduates Juliette Cortez, his daughter, and Anders Alvarado, his godson. They all participated in the Westbury PTA car parade. Asked about his plans, Alvarado answered, “We’ll see what the future brings.” Cortez said that she hopes to major in elementary education.

Governor Andrew Cuomo limited outdoor high school commencement gatherings to 150 people, and consequently, many larger districts chose not to hold them. Thousands of high school students in New York State did not experience the traditional graduation sights and sounds. There was no satisfaction of receiving a diploma and acknowledgment of their accomplishments before a crowd of family, friends and peers.

The Westbury School District had a couple of ideas to get around this limitation. Over the span of a week in June, the 400-plus graduates were invited to the high school, where Superintendent of Schools Eudes Budhai, Principal David Zimbler, other school officials and board of education members greeted them as they arrived at the front entrance.

In the auditorium, each student stood on stage and was handed their diploma and listened to a personalized address by the principal and were told that they had officially completed the requirements for graduation.

Graduate Samuel Alexis arrives at the high school to receive his diploma. (Photo courtesy of the Westbury High School PTA)

Asked to characterize the Class of 2020, Budhai replied, “They are a very special group of human beings. They’re going to be leaders in this world. Their experiences have provided them with the deepest challenges ever imagined, and will prepare them for almost any obstacles that may present themselves in the future.”

The Westbury High School PTSA found another way to laud the Class of 2020. On June 20, it organized a parade that weaved its way through parts of 34 streets in the village. The caravan started and ended at the parking lot adjacent to the Westbury Middle School. Several dozen cars participated, accompanied by two Westbury Fire Department cars and a firetruck.

Valedictorian Olusola “Shola” Babalola listens as Principal David Zimbler gives one of his personalized speeches. (Photo courtesy of Westbury High School PTA)

PTSA President Ren Zelaya said he had taken part in the Thankful Tuesday events—in which cars would drive past the homes of first responders and other people on the front lines of the fight against the coronavirus—and got the idea for the parade. Subsequently, he received the green light from Superintendent Budhai.

In addition to students and parents, Town of North Hempstead Councilwoman Viviana Russell and Nassau County Legislator Siela Bynoe participated, along with Westbury Union Free School District Board of Education trustees Michelle Wilson and Pedro Quintanilla.

Formal graduation/yearbook photos of every graduate were placed on the front lawn of the high school. (Photo courtesy of Westbury High School PTA)

According to Zelaya, “[Board President] Robert Troiano stopped by the lot as we were setting up, but he was committed to an election event at the ‘Yes We Can’ Center.”

Spectators included Principal Zimbler and many teachers from Westbury High School.

Zelaya said that members from Westbury Arts “helped us with the decorating of the vehicles.”

Among the PTA members participating in the parade were, from left: Ligia Reyes, Vivian Hernandez, President Ron Zelaya and Secretary Kevin Cherry.

“I am happy that we were able to pull this off for the students,” Zelaya said. “It would have been nice to have been able to hit all of the streets where the graduates live, but the logistics made it impossible for a class of over 400 graduates. I personally hope that enough community members saw it, and will maybe feel inspired to join and help the PTSA so that future such endeavors can be grander and more spectacular.”

The Green Dragon himself took part in the parade.

The parade committee consisted of Zelaya; Gloria Rosenau, president of the PTA Council; Elizabeth LaPierre-Cyr (WHS PTSA treasurer); Shelby Cyr (student, class 2021); Dr. Renee Wright (WHS PTSA member); Gwen Enocher-Washington (parent); and Deatrice Johnson (parent).

Other members of the high school PTSA are Tania Stamp, vice president; Kevin Cherry, secretary; Vania Duarte, teacher representative; and Elaine Lovell, council rep.

Westbury Arts helped decorate the 30-odd cars taking part in the Westbury PTA Class of 2020 car parade.
Gaudenzio Cortez drives his car to the parade’s end at the Westbury Middle School tennis courts (now a parking lot). Daughter and new grad Juliette Cortez smiles from the back seat.
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Frank Rizzo is a journalist at Anton Media Group. With decades of experience in the industry, he is exceptionally equipped to cover local politics, business and other topics that matter to readers.

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