When Jason Wheeler sent out the call, he had no idea what sort of response he’d get. The school district’s spokesperson and anchor of its social media universe was looking for a way to recognize first responders and health workers, and to make a connection between them and the district’s purpose. The idea that struck him was to seek out graduates of Flagler Palm Coast High School and Matanzas High School who’d gone on to fill jobs in those fields anywhere in the county, the state or the country, and honor them on the district’s social media pages.
It went from trickle to flood in a matter of days, starting with Riley Carter, an ER nurse at Halifax Hospital and 2011 FPC graduate to Alexandra Simpkins, a police officer in a department outside Atlanta and 2014 PFC graduate, to Sidney Mariano Courtway, a registered nurse at AdventHealth Palm Coast and 2013 FPC graduate to Elyse Tallaksen, an RN at Halifax and 2015 FPC graduate to… what has turned into a mosaic of an honor roll of over 200 graduate-first responders on the front lines of the coronavirus emergency all over the region and beyond. It’s still growing.
“Once we started rolling the first week or so, it really was like an onslaught, which is really cool,” Wheeler said. “Our graduates are doing good work out there. That’s why we do what we do. Obviously we want to keep everybody local but we are exporting some great, great people doing some wonderful things these days. I didn’t know what to expect. It was a little daunting at one point. They were starting to pour in. Now I’ve got a system, it’s kind of under control now. But it’s really cool.”
Graduates’ parents, grandparents, friends all picked up on Wheeler’s call and started tagging their first responders, taking some of them unaware. In the case of Pete Young, the traffic homicide investigator with the Florida Highway Patrol–and the senior-most graduate: he graduated Bunnell High School in 1974–his daughter tagged him, triggering the boomerang of honor that Wheeler’s mosaic is also producing: reactions from all over the Facebook ecosystem to each graduate’s appearance in his or her responder role: “Thanks, Pete!” went one response to Young, who also has the grim distinction of having investigated the deaths of more people from road carnage than any other local graduate. “Lots of respect for your lengthy service to the State of Florida.”
Each graduate’s picture–many of them in masks–appears with a red-lettered Thank You, the graduate’s name, place of current work and year of graduation, above the hashtag #FlaglerStrong. The recognitions get shared and re-shared, turning into a virtual reunion across classes and time zones.
“The tribute has been amazing to follow,” School Board member Andy Dance said. “You tend to forget the impact that teachers, administrators and mentors have on students until you see their accomplishments years later. The fact that we have so many graduates in the medical fields, as first responders and in other supporting health related industries is inspiring. Plus we get to see how many are still in Flagler or the surrounding areas, contributing to the community that makes Flagler awesome and a great place to live and raise a family. We are proud of all our graduates, but in the middle of this pandemic, it is great to honor our graduates who are on the front lines battling this virus. We thank and appreciate them.”
The honor roll has reconnected former students with their teachers, or former students with each other, and it’s been achieving one of the purposes behind the idea, which emerged as the district had shifted entirely to online education. “What we’re doing is for a reason, it’s not just to give them work on the computer and try to get them through a school year,” Wheeler said. The work in whatever form, in other words, leads somewhere, and in these cases it’s led to a small army, a cavalry, of graduates doing life-saving work.
Naturally Wheeler got questioned: why not also men and women in the military? Why not grocery store workers, delivery persons and many other essential workers? “I get it, I understand, but at some point you’ve got to put a focus on an area and that’s what we chose this time around,” Wheeler said. “But it really hits home. It’s like our graduates really are everywhere.” (Wheeler is a 1988 graduate of Homewood High School in suburban Birmingham.)
In some cases, they appear in group pictures, like Alaina Jolley Chewning, Sharon Walker and Karol Herrera Vargas, all FPC graduates–2007, 1992 and 1998, respectively–all working in one capacity or another in general surgery, though they don’t say where. Just before Memorial Day, Bobbyann Davis, a 2014 graduate of FPC and a phlebotomist at Quest Diagnostics, appeared in full mask and face shield to a string of thank yous, applause and pride.
“This mosaic of humanity displays the heart of Flagler schools and our county as a whole,” School Board member Colleen Conklin, who’s shaken hands with almost every one of the graduates over years of graduation ceremonies in her own long service on the board, said in a text. “I was simply blown away by the number of graduates that have become first responders and health care professionals. I am proud of the campaign Jason Wheeler has put together. It’s provided an ongoing light during these challenging times and a reminder that we are #flaglerstrong. We will get through this together.”