PORTLAND — Kaitlyn Gradie clutched a red rose and took in the moment Friday as 14 fellow graduates swirled around her outside Portland Public Library’s Rines Auditorium.

She had just graduated from Learning Works’ Youth Building Alternatives program, which helps at-risk youths earn general educational development certificates and learn job skills.

“I was pushed out of high school and essentially told I wouldn’t make it,” said Gradie, whose piercings and tattoos suggest an independent streak and whose unrestrained smile flashes optimism about the future. “I made it, and I have a new group of people supporting me.”

Gradie hopes to become a sign language interpreter.

She and the other graduates, many of whom have had difficult situations at home and dropped out or been expelled from high school, were cheered on by about 100 supporters at Friday’s ceremony.

Gov. Paul LePage, who has spoken often of his own struggles with homelessness and family dysfunction, was the keynote speaker.

“It’s just an enormous challenge, when you are on the streets and you’ve taken the wrong leg of the Y in the road, to come back,” LePage said.

But, he said, such students have had experiences that many of their contemporaries haven’t had to overcome, so they have developed self-reliance that can help them in the future.

Ethan Strimling, Learning Works’ chief executive officer, said the governor is a powerful role model for those and other young people who may be told they won’t amount to anything.

LePage’s example shows that, with hard work and dedication, they can be successful.

“I don’t doubt for a second the governor wants these kids to be successful as much as anyone in the state,” Strimling said afterward.

LePage and Strimling, a former Democratic state senator and congressional candidate, are on opposite ends of the political spectrum. But they were together in supporting Friday’s graduates and the importance of boosting the number of people who earn diplomas or GEDs.

“These folks have said, ‘No, thank you. You’re not going to let me fall through the cracks,’ ” Strimling said.

Eyes puffy from happy tears, Amy Hartbell — whose daughter, Rianna Tuttle, was among the program’s graduates — said LePage’s sentiment moved her.

“When he says, ‘If it is to be, it is up to me,’ that’s what I kept telling my daughter — it’s up to you to succeed,” said Hartbell.

The graduates flipped the tassels on their mortarboards, got a standing ovation and marched through the auditorium to “Pomp and Circumstance.”

Afterward, Chris Rubero, 24, was near tears.

“It’s a really big deal,” he said. “My parents are really happy. They never thought they would see this day.”

Shakira DiPietro, 18, hopes to use her graduation as a springboard to become a therapist or get another job in which she can help children.

“They always had confidence in me,” DiPietro said of the school’s academic and job skills staff. “They never gave up on me.”

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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