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One Student Missing, Not Forgotten at Jordan Valley Commencement

Aug 03, 2016 10:11AM ● Published by Julie Slama

Jordan Valley’s Denvyre Smith receives her diploma May 26 at the school’s commencement exercises. — Julie Slama

By Julie Slama | julie@mycityjournals.com


Sandy, Utah - An empty chair with a bouquet, graduation robe and mortarboard sat on Jordan Valley School stage at the May 26 commencement exercises.

It was in honor of 22-year-old Ian Milliner, who had died suddenly of natural causes during spring break. A moment of silence and a post-humorous degree was bestowed upon him.

His family was thanked for allowing him to be at the school that serves students with severe multiple disabilities including autism, cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury, seizure disorders, communication impairments, genetic disorders and syndromes, deaf–blindness and students who are extremely medically fragile. The goal at Jordan Valley School is to improve the quality of life for students and their families.

“Ian had been here since he was little,” Principal Mark Donnelly said. “There were some amazing moments and some that were difficult, but we all just loved him. He had a love for everyone, had a part in the school musical with his class and a real presence here at Jordan Valley.”

Photos of Ian from infancy to adulthood, as well as the other student graduates, were set to music and shown to the audience. Others graduating include Chance Ashby, Janessa Davilla, Arthur Morris, Kira Mortensen, Hunter Pfoutz and Denvyre Smith. A reception, featuring the graduates’ favorite foods — Kira’s, Chex Mix; Hunter’s potato chips, Chance’s marshmallows; Janessa’s Diet Coke; Arthur’s Cinnamon Crunch Toast cereal; Denvyre’s nuts; and Ian’s Sour Patch Kids candy — followed the ceremony.

Canyons School District Superintendent Jim Briscoe said all the students are valued at Jordan Valley and that he appreciated the dedication of the school faculty and administrators.

“We feel as proud as your parents,” he said. “These students at Jordan Valley have a special place in our hearts. And I thank you the dedication of these people, to be here, to work here, to help these students overcome obstacles.”

Canyons Board of Education member Nancy Tingy agreed on the selfless acts faculty provide to give the students similar experiences as their peers in other schools — participation in the annual school musical to providing art work for the District Christmas card.

“More importantly, the daily acts of service and kindness given at Jordan Valley, radiate from these halls into the lives of all those who surround and associate with this wonderful school,” she said before recognizing the parents and family who have supported the students. “Your strong hearts and deep courage are unrivaled. I recognize that leaving the familiar setting and routine of Jordan Valley brings many emotions.”

Assistant Superintendent Kathryn McCarrie said that while other graduating students have several options, such as college or career, these students have minimal options.

“There are limited adult services and the change will be great since this school has had a large influence and support for so many students,” she said.

Donnelly said that there is apprehension, anxiety and fears like many parents face when they send their students to kindergarten or see them graduate from high school, but in this case, it is more significant.

“It is even a bigger step as they will learn what services there are, what support there is, if they can be in a group home, a work environment, an opportunity to get out and learn more social skills. We help them learn the transition between 18 and when they leave us at 22,” he said.

Hunter’s dad, Erich Pfoutz, said his son transitioned to a group home last October.

“It was very hard since he has been home every night for 21.5 years,” he said. “We couldn’t visit him as he adjusted, but we’d spy through the window and when it worked (with the transition), we’d call. Now, he’s able to go out on the bus in the community to a work activities center.”

Hunter, who has autism, recently helped for two weeks assembling first aid kits.

“It’s been fantastic for him, but at first, the transition was very hard. In these short 22 years, I’ve seem him grow so much since he first jumped on the tramp. When he was three-and-one-half, he used the computer and I worked the mouse. Three months later, his face just lit up and grabbed my hand. I could see it in his eyes, to move my hand away and he was able to do it all on his own. He’s really bright. I’m so proud of him,” Pfoutz said.

It hasn’t been a smooth road for many of his fellow graduates. His classmate, Arthur, has been through several close medical calls, his parents Marjene and Jonathan Morris recall.

“He nearly drowned; he was bleeding in his lungs; he has had pneumonia; he started with a hole in his heart and had open heart surgery when he was five months old,” Marjene Morris said.

Arthur has Smith-Magenis, a lack of genes in his 17th chromosome that has delayed his speech, given him seizures, abnormal sleep patterns and behavioral issues.

“He has had very little speech, but with the speech program and teacher here (Sue Sompson), in the last two years, it’s been amazing. He’s been able to use gestures and signs and some words just like she knew he could do it,” Marjene Morris said.

That makes his father more comfortable.

“He’s moving on to a new stage in life and with his communication, he can now express himself better and so his behavior has improved,” Morris said. “Before he couldn’t tell us what was bothering him. It’s been a successful day. As he walked in (to the ceremony) with me, he recognized his name and waved. He will miss everyone here, especially Leslies Johnson, his aide who has seem him from when he was little until now. ”

Donnelly said commencement day is a poignant day.

“This is a real emotional day for them and for us — each and every day, seeing their expressions whether they’re happy or not happy, seeing their unique personalities. We learn more from them than they do for us. We’re the fortunate ones to be a part of Jordan Valley,” he said.    

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