Lonesome and in an unfamiliar place, Shakira Perez said when she first arrived at the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind at age 7, she called home to Greeley every day.
"I miss my mom. Where is she? I'm not sure I like this," Perez recalled her thoughts at the time.
But she persevered and Friday afternoon her voice filled the school's gymnasium with a rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Few, if any, were unmoved. Just moments later, the young blind woman accepted her high school diploma alongside 15 of her fellow students.
Remembering her early years at the school, Perez said her restlessness continued until a water gun fight broke out in her dormitory. The friendly spat was the start of many new friendships to come. And soon she met Jamie Lugo, then an elementary teacher.
Now Lugo is principal for the School for the Blind, and Perez affectionately calls her "Miss Jamie." At the start of their friendship, Perez said Lugo helped her learn vocabulary words when her English grades were slipping.
"She jumped on top of a table because she was being brazen," Perez said. "That means brash and bold."
Lugo laughed at the long-forgotten story, surprised Perez remembered.
Each student has faced substantial and unique challenges, Lugo said. But they find solace at the school and with each other.
Outside, the deaf students face isolation, said Pam Parker, a speech pathologist nearing her 30th year at the school. Few people can communicate with them through sign language, but with each other and the school's faculty they develop confidence and self-esteem.
"We're more than just teachers," Parker said. "We're role models, we're friends, we're confidants."
The proof is plain to see. Past students graced the school's gymnasium Friday. They said and signed hello to old friends, teachers and students. The camaraderie they developed shone through as they embraced each other.
The Class of 2018 marched into the gymnasium like any other graduating class, with "Pomp and Circumstance" on the loudspeakers. They boasted glitter and beads on their red and white caps, which stood atop infectious smiles. Some applauded while others flourished their hands in the air - a more visual type of applause - for the young adults.
Speakers from the graduating class recalled their own personal challenges. Nathaniel Yant, a graduate of the School for the Blind, said he wasn't expected to live more than a few months. As he grew, Yant said doctors then expected him to be a blind vegetable with diminished cognitive abilities.
"Well I can see, and I'm walking and talking right now," Yant said. "And I thank my lucky stars not only was I able to graduate, but I graduated at the top of my class."
Timothy Dimiceli, a graduate of the School for the Deaf, said through a translator that attending the school was the best decision he's made; the experience, he said, passed by in the blink of an eye. The school, his classmates, his teachers and friends built his self-confidence and taught him how to be a man, he said.
High school diploma in tow, Dimiceli said his goal is to become a crime scene investigator, no matter how much work is ahead.
"I refuse to give up," Dimiceli said. "I fought through so many things and here I am today. Never give up."
Perez said she plans to continue her education at a transition program housed at the school, which will teach her how to live independently. The aspiring singer-songwriter is also seeking a producer to help her make music.
If a career in show business doesn't pan out, Perez said she wants to become a massage therapist or start a restaurant.