An enthusiastic welcome and messages of encouragement greeted a group of recent high school graduates, all alumni of Kids Unlimited Academy.

KUA’s first “grad walk” invited more than 20 seniors from North and South Medford high schools, as well as St. Mary’s School, to tour the halls where they attended as primary and middle schoolers. In their royal blue and black and red gowns over long dresses or ripped jeans, wearing Birkenstocks and Converse, the grads carried KUA tote bags, yellow roses and purple chrysanthemums in one hand. They high-fived KUA students with the other.

“The people who graduate from here are always going to be KUA kids,” said Principal Jani Hale.

The June 1 event wasn’t an inspiration only to KUA students. The grads themselves participated in a discussion with Hale and KU CEO Tom Cole, who urged graduates to go out into the world and find their niche.

“What do you want next?” asked Cole. “You’ve got to figure out what your passion is.”

Both Cole and Hale recalled negative experiences around their own high school years and how they didn’t let those setbacks keep them from pursuing something better for themselves. Hale spoke of growing up in poverty and taking a job in the cafeteria of Medford Mid High — now Oakdale Middle School — and feeling shame for not finishing her own high school education.

“Every bad thing that happened to you, you will find is an opportunity for you to get stronger,” said Hale.

Cole said there wasn’t a single adult in his life who offered him incentives, and he didn’t even want to go to his high school graduation. When he went on to college, he realized he could surround himself with people willing to join him on a mission to create change in the world.

“Don’t let any old person tell you you can’t do it,” Cole said. “Don’t let them tell you you don’t have enough experience.”

He acknowledged the graduates, who persevered through the unprecedented hurdles of COVID restrictions in schools, still have challenges ahead. But they can still lift up younger kids who are even more impacted by outside influences and social media, said Cole and Hale.

“Our students need to hear your voices right now,” said Hale.

Several South Medford grads shared their memories and future plans.

Mia Murphy, who attended KUA in fourth through eighth grades, said she loved KUA’s “amazing” teachers and the class trip to Six Flags. She plans to attend Oregon institute of Technology and study medical imaging.

Hayden Hull, who attended KUA in third through eighth grades, said he loved the school’s opportunities and being in the kitchen with Kris Walker. He plans to attend Rogue Community College.

Elijah Hernandez, who attended KUA in third through eighth grades, said he loved having great teachers “who engage with their students and make the learning environment a positive experience.” He plans to attend RCC, then transfer to either Southern Oregon University or OIT to study microbiology and medical laboratory sciences.