KNOXVILLE, Tenn., May 16, 2019 -- A hospital courtyard was turned into a makeshift graduation stage for a high school senior whose illness kept him for graduating alongside fellow members of his senior class.
Justin Dees had hoped to join fellow seniors at William Blount High School Monday during graduation ceremonies. However, an illness kept him at Knoxville's East Tennessee Children's Hospital throughout this week.
Thanks to fast work by hospital staff and local U.S. Army recruiters, Dees was formally presented with his diploma Monday night. Dees briefly exchanged hospital garb for a cap and gown as a piano was rolled in and a volunteer played "Pomp and Circumstances."
"It wasn't really the way we wanted," said Dees' father, Anthony. "We had hoped he would be out of the hospital by (Monday night)."
Unlike most high school graduates, Justin Dees' wore a black and gold tassel with Army colors. He is scheduled to leave for Army basic training in July.
When it became clear that Justin Dees would be unable to walk the line with his fellow graduates, hospital staff sprang into action. Nurse Jessica Baker explained the predicament to Cheryl Allmon, director of Volunteer Services at ETCH, who was able to mobilize hospital volunteers to put a ceremony together.
"Volunteers came together with the medical staff to provide a cake, decorations, music and presentation of Justin's diploma," Allmon said. "Coming together to help a child is what Children's Hospital is all about.
"Sometimes that goes well beyond medical needs."
Among the volunteers getting a call was Staff Sgt. Cory Barnes, an Army recruiter who serves at the Oak Ridge U.S. Army Recruiting Station. Oddly enough, Barnes had only begun serving as a hospital volunteer the week before.
"We were honored to be a part of the ceremony," Barnes said. "The volunteers at the hospital were great, and they did all the footwork."
Barnes enlisted fellow Army recruiters Staff Sgt. Benjamin Erskine and Staff Sgt. Tierre Martin to don dress blue uniforms and join in the ceremony. Martin helped enlist Justin Dees into the Army where he will serve as an airborne infantryman once he completes his training at Fort Benning, Ga.
Anthony Dees said he was surprised when he saw local Army recruiters enter the hospital room. Their presence touched the family who had gathered for the big moment.
"We didn't know the Army recruiters were going to be there until it came down to it," Anthony Dees said. "I have to commend them."
For her part, Allmon said the effort it took was well worth it. The nurses and hospital staff were all touched by the response.
"Being able to put together a graduation just for Justin was a blessing to everyone involved," Allmon said. "He looked so proud, and his smile was the best reward ever."
Anthony Dees said 17-year-old Justin was beaming during the ceremony. He appreciated being able to receive his degree at the same time, if not in the same place, with his fellow students.
"He told me he enjoyed this way better," Anthony Dees said. "He was humbled by all the effort everyone went through."
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