Jacob Weaver speaks to a crowd full of supporters during the Aug. 29, 2013, graduation ceremony at the Tennessee Rehabilitation Center in Smyrna, Tenn. Weaver was one of several students who graduated. (TMP Photo/D. Whittle)
Cheers, flag waving and foot-stomping rocked the old gymnasium.
Enter stage right, Steven Sheegog II, who brought his personal cheering squad from Memphis, the state’s outpost to the west.
Nineteen-year-old Jacob Weaver appeared anxious, moments before taking the court. But he appeared confident, in knowing that his cheerleading team from Knoxville had arrived. Jacob was representing East Tennessee with obvious pride.
Arriving center court was Hunter Poivier, representing the Mount Juliet community.
“I am a winner,” Hunter said moments before taking center court.
As players, they were given ovations, cheers and hugs as the spectators were awash with emotion and excitement in seeing their favorites arrive in the gym.
This was no mere sporting event.
This was excitement about the real game of life where the players all come handicapped, but are never defeated. Hunter, Steven and Jacob were among the 69 star players a part of the 2013 graduation class at the nationally acclaimed Tennessee Rehabilitation Center located in Smyrna.
“I try not to miss the annual graduation at TRC,” said former state Rep. John Hood, of Murfreesboro. “These students and staff here are truly inspiring.”
Joyful tears flowed freely in the stands as fellow students and family witnessed the stars of respective families step forward, in caps and gowns, some walked slowly on crutches while other graduates rolled full-steam ahead in wheelchairs, striving to be all they can be, despite obstacles that life’s circumstances have dealt them.
Meet graduate Steven “Mr. Personality” Sheegog II, who came to TRC directly from East High in Memphis, where, despite autism, he was voted “most likely to be remembered” with the “most school spirit” for his devotion to duties as the manager of the old school’s girls basketball team.
“Steven sees opportunities, not handicaps,” noted his mother, Levon, who obviously was Steve’s biggest cheerleader at his recent graduation from TRC. “The motivation he received here is phenomenal … a God thing.”
“I’m graduating today in the jobs program. I’ve studied to be a grounds’ keeper,” said Steven, 25, who worked at an internship from TRC at the nearby Lowe’s Home Improvement store in Smyrna.
“The money allocated for the Tennessee Rehabilitation Center, one of only eight of its kind in America, is the best spent tax dollars in our state,” said Steven’s father, Steven Sheegog Sr., a banker from Memphis. “We’re so proud of TRC, and our son.”
“We’re in the presence of greatness today,” Tennessee Assistant Commissioner of Rehabilitation Services Cherrell Campbell-Street declared. “Graduates, this is your day. You’ve earned all the accolades afforded real winners of life.” Her remarks came as she looked at the rehabilitation center’s shield and motto on the aging gym’s wall, declaring there is “Power to Make a Difference.”
Jacob turned evangelist when describing his schooling at TRC, located on a campus as part of the Smyrna Airport complex.
“I’ve been through transitional living skills,” he said. “I’ve been taught how to keep a checkbook balanced, and how to do so when I use my credit card. I’ve learned how to cook too.”
His parents, Marvin and Ellen Weaver, praised the TRC program, one that is often used as role model in other states.
“You can’t find help like what exists at TRC, much less afford it,” Marvin echoed the praise.
His mother described her son’s medical diagnosis: “Jacob is an identical twin, who had twin-to-twin syndrome, where one twin gets more blood and nutrients while I was carrying them to term. His diagnosis is pervasive development disorder, caused by lack of oxygen in utero. His brain development was affected, causing delays in all areas.”
Steven and Jacob were among 22 graduates wearing honor cords on their graduation caps and gowns, signifying their exemplary behavior while studying at TRC.
Student graduation speaker Justin Woods was introduced by Assistant Superintendent of Client Services Becky Rhea: “Following last year’s graduation ceremony, Justin bravely came up to me, saying he wanted to be speaker at this year’s graduation.”
This was no small step in Justin’s progress toward graduation, since he has a form of autism that hinders communication skills.
“I used to misunderstand what others would say or do sometimes and it would affect me emotionally,” Justin described.
Autism spectrum disorders are often described as complex brain disorders that impair social development and communication skill levels.
Justin and his broad smile as he walked proudly to the podium, received a standing ovation.
“I want to thank all my teachers,” Justin justified.
Graduates passing through the graduation line came from towns such as Smyrna, Murfreesboro, McMinnville, Mount Juliet, Woodbury, Auburntown, Shelbyville, Tullahoma, Nashville, La Vergne -- and points in between and beyond throughout the Volunteer State.