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Better than a diploma: Teen walks the stage to cheers, tears

By ELLEN CIURCZAK, The Hattiesburg AmericanJune 9, 2019

HATTIESBURG, Miss. (AP) — There was no diploma in the folder he received. But that wasn’t the point.

It was the actual walk across the stage with Petal High graduates that brought people to their feet clapping, many in tears.

Jacoby Bergeron, 17, has Batten disease — which damages the brain and nervous system — and usually is in a wheelchair.

Jacoby’s form of the disease is also almost always fatal by the ages of 8 to 12. But Thursday night, with the assistance of his therapist, special education teacher and classroom coach, Jacoby walked across the graduation stage.

Dixie Bergeron knew this was the year for her son to participate in graduation because his health and mental alertness have been declining.

“It’s a brain disease that he has,” she said. “His brain is not telling his body all the things it’s supposed to do.”

Petal school officials agreed Jacoby should participate.

“His whole graduating class stood up,” Bergeron said. “It was a moment I’ll never forget.

“He understood people were clapping for him. He understood people were celebrating him.”

Jacoby, who has the mental capacity of a 12- to 18-month-old, is a junior. He will continue special education classes at Petal High until he is 21. He’ll actually graduate when he completes those classes.

Miranda Williams, public information officer for the Petal Police Department, has known Jacoby since 2015 when he began participating in the department’s Shop with a Cop. Police officers take children in need shopping at Christmas time and then spend the day with them at the station.

“I don’t think there was a dry eye in the entire Reed Green Coliseum,” said Williams. “A lot of people have followed his story.

“When you invest in a child and you see him do something he’s not supposed to do, and he’s beat the odds, it’s inspiring to see,” Williams said.

LaToya Jackson, an employment specialist who threw Jacoby a big birthday party in Hattiesburg in April 2018, also watched Jacoby walk.

“I had no words,” she said. “I had a face full of tears.

“Seeing him ... reminded me that anything is possible.”

Jacoby started showing symptoms of Batten disease when he was 4 or 5, but he didn’t receive an official diagnosis until 2015. He went to many doctors and underwent multiple medical tests before Bergeron was told Jacoby had the late infantile form of the disease, which includes loss of muscle tone and coordination, seizures and speech and motor skill problems that get worse over time.

For now, Bergeron takes life one minute at a time and appreciates every moment she has with Jacoby.

“If he can get up every day and smile and put a smile on your face — I think that’s something he’ll be remembered for,” she said.

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Information from: The Hattiesburg American, http://www.hattiesburgamerican.com

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