AUGUSTA — Ashley Viles and Jeffrey Kierstead took different routes through their time at Erskine Academy, but as they prepared to graduate Friday evening during a ceremony at Augusta Civic Center, each was thankful for the support offered to them in high school.

Kierstead, an accomplished wrestler from South China, plans to study at Maine Maritime Academy next year. He finished high school with straight A’s, he said, but such grades would have been unimaginable just two years ago, when his father died from cancer and his grief made it impossible to focus.

“That took a big toll on my school work,” he said, adding that he received several failing grades that year.

But because of the warmth extended by Kierstead’s friends and teachers at the South China school, he continued, “my grades went up after that.” He maintained his academic performance this year, even as he overcame a broken rib to place at the state wrestling tournament.

Viles, of Vassalboro, also thanked her friends, teachers and other mentors for getting her through a rough patch.

Next year, she intends to study mental health at Kennebec Valley Community College and hopes to become a guidance counselor.

She originally hoped to study dental hygiene, she said, but when a friend of hers expressed suicidal thoughts, it set her on her current course.

She helped the friend get help for her depression, she said, and many other people gave her help during that time, including a specialist in a career development program called Jobs for Maine’s Graduates.

“The people (at Erskine Academy) have been extra supportive,” she said, adding that she could always return to the school and find someone to encourage her.

There was plenty more encouragement for her, Kierstead and their nearly 120 classmates as they graduated on Friday night.

Wearing caps and gowns — the girls in white, the boys in blue — they listened to addresses from their fellow graduates.

“Everyone has potential to do what they want in life,” said Justin Harris, the valedictorian, in a speech that included a series of “shout-outs” to his classmates, teachers and family members. “Everyone makes mistakes. We all have room for improvement.”

The graduating seniors also heard remarks from Donald and Johnna Fandel Flood, alumni of Erskine Academy who graduated exactly 20 years ago and now have a family together.

Donald Flood, a software engineer and technology entrepreneur, has worked in Silicon Valley and now lives with his family in Denver, Colorado. Johnna Fandel Flood works as a public health consultant and runs her own business, Community Wise.

Donald Flood referred to some of the success stories he’s heard in Silicon Valley and tried to impart what they had in common.

“The common thread among all these people is everyone of them has a well developed personal philosophy,” Donald Flood said. “When you approach regular challenges, you can use these values as a guide post.”

He then named two values he picked up in high school and that he’s incorporated into his own philosophy: “over-communication, and determination-as-a-muscle.”

Johnna Fandel Flood picked up that theme in her remarks, telling the graduates to find their own philosophy and to listen to the stories the world has to tell them.

She remembered the literature she read at Erskine Academy that made her consider the experiences of political prisoners and refugees from war-torn countries.

Based in part on those classes, she said, she has been able to go out into the world and make tangible change, such as starting a child care service in Oakland, California, that serves low-income families.

“As you leave tonight and embark on the next stage of your life, our hope for you is to be true to yourself, to trust in the values given to you,” she said. “Go out into the world with kindness and integrity. Understand what you have to offer the world, and what the world has to offer you, and no doubt you’ll be successful by whatever measure is meaningful to you.”

Johnna Fandel Flood also remembered the time when, as a student at Erskine Academy, her mother had to take a job out of state and she decided to stay in Maine, looking after herself.

“I really missed having family here,” she said, but other families and faculty members invited her to dinner and helped during that time. “My Erskine family didn’t miss a beat,” she said.

Before the graduation ceremony started, another student, Seth Allen, of Windsor, donned the white sash that’s reserved for high school graduates entering the U.S. Air Force.

Allen will attend basic training in July and plans to serve for four years, doing work on planes, so that he eventually can study civil and mechanical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, he said.

He appreciates the hard mathematics and sciences classes he was able to take at Erskine Academy, he said. Like so many others Friday, he also had something to say about the people he met along the way.

“Everybody is there to help you,” he said.

Charles Eichacker — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @ceichacker

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