The ceremony began with a jazzy rendition of "Pomp and Circumstance," but the music had settled down to a more stately version of the old commencement standard by the time graduates filed in. Parents and friends clapped for several minutes until all 32 graduates were seated in blue robes and mortarboards.
"It's kind of a cold, dreary day outside," said Lori Kaplan, executive director of the Latin American Youth Center, indicating the rain at the center's Columbia Road headquarters, "But it's a beautiful day inside."
The graduation ceremony last week marked the end of months of work for participants in the YouthBuild program.
The graduates, former high school dropouts who center officials said had been stymied by drugs, gangs and early parenthood, were beaming, some with both parents and children in the audience. In the YouthBuild program, all had received classroom instruction, experience in construction and help finding jobs.
"It feels like it was all worth it," said Keith Stewart, 19, after the ceremony.
The ceremony included speeches in English and Spanish, reflecting the fact that the graduates included Latinos and African Americans and that YouthBuild instructors worked in both languages.
The keynote speaker was Ivan C.A. Walks, former D.C. Health Department director, who told the students of his humble beginnings in Southern California and his happiness when he graduated from junior college.
"What you have learned is that each of you wearing these blue robes can start something, see it all the way through . . . and you can finish it," Walks said.
The ceremony included a slide show of YouthBuild students working on houses they helped to rehabilitate and a glowing thank-you from the daughter of one woman whose home was repaired. "It looks like a picture from a housing magazine," Patricia Thompson told the students.
But the emotional highlight was an off-the-cuff speech by Brandon Jordan, graduating after nine months in the program. He announced that he had lost his prepared speech. Then his voice broke as he gave an impromptu tribute to his classmates.
"To my graduating class, we had a nice time," Jordan said. "I just want to tell y'all, this ain't it, we still got a long way to go."
The center invited reporters to the graduation, officials said, to draw attention to the fact that a federal grant funding the program was not renewed this year. Loss of the $500,000 grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development does not mean that the program is doomed, Kaplan said.
Rather, she said, it would continue this year, but if federal funding did not return in next year's budget, YouthBuild might be canceled. Kaplan said that two other federally funded YouthBuild programs are in the city but that the Latin American Youth Center's version was the only one with a relatively even mix of Latino and African American students.