Bartlett friends support a happy graduate

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If you want to measure a community’s love, it’s about 50 cars long. That’s how many vehicles of friends, teachers, church members and family showed up Sunday afternoon in a personal parade past Dalton Connerly’s home.

The Bartlett High School senior, who has autism, was crestfallen at how coronavirus precautions dampened plans for a traditional graduation ceremony.

His mom, Rhonda Connerly, had been preparing him for the big day for the past four years, taking him to other classes’ graduations so he would know what to expect. It had become familiar to him, and he was looking forward to his big day in the spotlight with his friends and classmates.

Routine is very important for Dalton, and he knows that there’s a big program at the end of high school. Then, along came COVID-19, and big gatherings weren’t possible.

His mom said, “So we just brought graduation to him.”

Shelly White taught with Rhonda 15 years ago when Dalton was a preschooler, and she’s a longtime friend of the family. She asked if they would let her coordinate a personal ceremony in Dalton’s honor. The family consented, and she whipped up a memorable gathering.

“He’s got a whole lot of people who love him, and they wanted to be here today,” White said.

Rhonda said, “I’m just overwhelmed with all the people who’ve come out to support him. And we know that he’s got a lot of friends, and we’re thankful for that. But it’s still just so overwhelming that people would want to share this day and make it extra special for him.”

So on Sunday, Dalton walked out of his house in his mortarboard cap and blue graduation gown, to the tune of “Pomp and Circumstance.” His yard was full of balloons and signs, and smiling family members surrounded him as he walked under a balloon arch and down his driveway. His high school principal had a recorded message for him as his degree was delivered. After a few moments of applause, Dalton settled in to wait for the next phase of his celebration.

He didn’t have long to wait. Friends had gathered earlier at New Hope Christian Church nearby in Bartlett. Many had balloons and decorative signs on the sides of their vehicle. At least one had a tiny Christmas tree on top and the passengers wore felt reindeer antlers because the holiday is Dalton’s favorite and the decorations were guaranteed to brighten his day. While the lineup formed, a nearly life-size cutout photo of Dalton was propped up at the start of the line so friends could take photos of them with “flat Dalton.”

Bartlett police officers led the way for a safe parade, and Dalton ran out to greet and take quick photos with friends in each car.

Attendees said they were happy to do the special parade for their friend.

Kathy Wright said the families met when Dalton’s mother taught two of her children in kindergarten. Wright’s daughter Anna also is a current sophomore at Bartlett High, where she’s in the theater program, and Dalton is a big fan.

“We’re just big fans of Dalton because we love the Connerly family,” Wright said. “He’s such a great kid, and they’re just special to a lot of people.”

Sara Jerkins’ family attends Bellevue Baptist Church in Cordova along with the Connerly family. She said, “We’ve known Dalton since he was just a tiny little boy. And we watched him grow up, and we wanted to come celebrate this day with him.”

Jim and Cindy Jaggers said they help sponsor a bike camp that Dalton attended, and their nephew knew him. Cindy said they were excited and proud for Dalton.

Andrew Willis goes to Oak Elementary, where Dalton’s mom teaches. Andrew’s mother, Jessica also volunteers there and got to know Rhonda. They joined the parade out of affection for the family.

“We love them so much,” Jessica said.

Emily and Brigitt Green have known Dalton since he was in kindergarten, describing him as funny and loving. Brigitt said, “When I think of Dalton, I think of God. Just pure angel of the Lord. He’s a wonderful young man.”