CCDC celebrates graduation with former Eagle

Jon Runyon encourages grads to keep battling challenges

By Bob Ludwig, Special to The Times

CCDC graduate Cody and his dog Claire walk in the commencement on June 8.

CCDC graduate Cody and his dog Claire walk in the commencement on June 8.

COATESVILLE – Standing 6-foot-7 and weighing 330 pounds, former Philadelphia Eagle Jon Runyon casts a large shadow.

Even Runyon, the commencement speaker for the Child and Career Development Center (CCDC) graduation, could not overshadow the achievements of the 48 students who graduated on June 8 in Coatesville. The ceremony recognized graduates from CCDC, the Chester County Learning Center (CCLC) and the CHAAMP Program, a program for adolescents with autism. The Chester County Intermediate Unit (CCIU) operates all of the programs.

The CCDC is a center-based school for students ages 3 to 21 years old with differing abilities. The school has approximately 430 students in the following programs: autism support, learning support, emotional support, life skills support and multiple disability support. This array of services means that student success is measured in very different ways. For some students, it is learning how to respond to their name and track with their eyes, for others, it is improving reading skills and coping with anger. The CCDC’s mission is to provide a nurturing learning environment that meets the needs of all students, no matter their disability.

Chase, a CCDC student, receives his diploma from Bonnie J. Wolff, president of the Chester County Intermediate Unit Board, and Dr. Joseph J. O’Brien, CCIU executive director.

Chase, a CCDC student, receives his diploma from Bonnie J. Wolff, president of the Chester County Intermediate Unit Board, and Dr. Joseph J. O’Brien, CCIU executive director.

“Some of the graduates will go into supportive employment after graduation,” said CCDC principal Dr. Susan Mateka. “Some students will enter unsupportive employment and others will join adult day programs, group homes or stay home with family because of their medical circumstances.”

For 20-year-old Chase Darlington, graduation means working at Home Depot.

“I’m so proud of him,” said Darlington’s mother, Angela. “It’s been a lot of hard work, a lot of tears, a lot of therapists and a lot of Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings. It’s big for any child to graduate from high school, but more so for students with special needs. They’ve had so many obstacles their whole lives.”

Darlington said her son has autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which describes a range of conditions classified as neurodevelopmental disorders. More specifically, Chase battles pervasive developmental disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and oppositional defiant disorder. Chase first attended CCDC and later the CCLC where he studied in the horticulture and small engine programs.

“He’s doing really well now,” said Darlington. “Both of my parents (Peter and Agnes Farley of West Chester) were teachers and a huge help. They advocated for him. The whole family has been very supportive, including my husband, John, and his family.”

Kristin Gallahan, principal of the CCLC, said, “All of the students have made huge gains. This is the culmination of what they’ve worked so hard for. They’ve come a long way academically, socially and behaviorally. By far, this is the biggest thing to date in their lives, and they’ve earned all of it.”

Mateka echoed similar sentiments.

“This is the culmination of all their accomplishments,” she said. “You have to look at their accomplishments a little different that the typical public school student. Every little advancement is something to celebrate. I couldn’t be prouder. I’ve been here long enough to know some of the students since elementary school. Some come to us when they are five years old and stay until 12th grade, or until they’re 21 years old.”

During Runyon’s commencement address, he reminded the graduates and their families that everyone has challenges in life to overcome. The key is to become “comfortable in your own skin and to challenge yourself. Don’t fear the challenges. Use them as an opportunity to grow, to take advantage of the situation. Find who you are, embrace it and move forward.”

For Runyon, a challenge was presented when he was diagnosed with dyslexia during his freshman year the University of Michigan.

“I had to learn who I am and how to accomplish things,” he said. “Why couldn’t I understand English as well as my peers did? That (diagnosis) changed things. My coach (College Football Hall of Famer Bo Schembechler) said every day you either get better or you get worse. That’s what it’s all about. Don’t be afraid to fail, and learn from that failure.”

Runyon said it was his hope for the graduates to be “very successful in whatever you choose to do.”

In addition to his 14-year NFL career, Runyon of Moorestown, N.J., served as a United States Representative for New Jersey’s 3rd Congressional District from 2011-2015. Last month the NFL appointed Runyon as its vice president of policy and rules administration.

The graduates received their diplomas from CCIU Board President Bonnie J. Wolff, CCIU Executive Director Dr. Joseph J. O’Brien, Gallahan and CCDC assistant principals Diane Tallman and Nancy Young. As they were announced, Mateka gave a brief description of each graduate’s accomplishments, outside interests and future plans.

During the ceremony Mateka personally read something about each of the students. “They deserve that recognition,” she said. “This is a very special moment in their lives, and I’m privileged to be a part of it. They teach us more than we teach them about love, compassion and understanding. I know, without a doubt, that they make me a better person.”

In addition, CCLC Learning Support teacher John O’Rourke produced a heartfelt tribute of the graduates, with photos of each from childhood to graduation. The Senior Chorus, under the direction of Becky Sensenig, performed “The Climb” and concluded the commencement ceremony with “Cups Song.”

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