WINCHESTER — If a student passes away before they are able to graduate, Handley High School provides the family an opportunity to honor the student in a private graduation ceremony.
Over the past five years, Principal Mike Dufrene has helped provide graduation honors to three students posthumously.
On Sunday, the family of John David “J.D.” Ballard received his honorary diploma on the school’s front steps. J.D. died from suicide in 2017 when he was a 15-year-old freshman.
“It’s very poignant, it’s very hard, but it’s also wonderful,” J.D.’s mother Cathy Ballard said about the private ceremony, which followed social distancing guidelines that are in place because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Several teachers and family friends also attended.
Ballard said the social distancing was “a little weird” during such a personal ceremony, but she added that’s “just the weirdness that we’re all living in right now” amid the pandemic.
To adhere to social distancing guidelines, J.D.’s classmates will have their own individual diploma presentations on Handley’s front steps May 29-30.
Handley senior Jensyn Worrell, 18, was a close friend of J.D.’s and didn’t expect when the two met in fifth grade that they wouldn’t graduate together. She said it’s nice to know that he received an honorary diploma.
When they were younger, Worrell said her mother called J.D. “The Wizard” because of all the magic tricks he would do at their bus stop. And J.D. always brought some bacon on the bus for breakfast that he would share with Worrell, she added.
She also fondly remembers a soft, green sweatshirt that she stole from J.D. all the time, too.
J.D. was “charming” and everyone loved him, Worrell said. She added that he had a good sense of humor and was very sweet.
“As a friend, he was the best friend that anyone could have. He never failed to answer his phone and was super supportive,” Worrell said.
Dufrene recalled how well-liked J.D. was at Handley and how positive and polite he was toward others.
Following J.D.’s death, his family created the J.D. Ballard Teen Mental Health Fund to help other young people and their families who are coping with mental illness. J.D. had been fighting a two-year battle with depression before his death.
Ballard said one of the things she appreciated most about J.D.’s friends was that they told school counselors and teachers when he first began to struggle with his mental health. Because of them, Ballard said she was able to take him out of school and seek treatment.
“That’s what I encourage people to do, especially kids,” Ballard said. “Don’t be afraid to go and get help for someone you think needs it.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with their mental health or having suicidal thoughts, contact the local Concern Hotline at 540-667-0145.