Two New Jersey Camelot Students win Resilience Award in Memory of Classmate

Camelot’s program in Vineland, New Jersey, Cunningham Academy, has found a way to take a positive from a tragedy in creating and now awarding the Kevin Vasquez Resilience Award.

Tajhmir Walker and Juliza Perez (Photo: Deborah M. Marko)

Tajhmir Walker and Juliza Perez are the first winners of the award, intended to celebrate the achievements that can be reached with focus and effort.

Kevin came to Camelot as a 7th grader in 2016. He was very quiet, distant, had some issues with depression, and even ran out of the building on more than one occasion. He had a lot of anger and sometimes he couldn’t identify why.

“At previous schools, he would simply be separated from the rest of the students because of his issues,” said Program Manager, Hamidullah Lundy. “He didn’t know what it was like to be around other students or have good grades or receive encouragement.”

Kevin gradually started to share details of his life with his teacher’s aide Ms. Hargrove and his teacher Mr. Smith. They began to see a gradual change. He talked about his love of sports and his desire to join the Police Athletic League. He began to have goals. By the end of the school year he had made the honor roll and he was looking very much forward to the next school year.

He contacted the school during the summer to talk about how excited he was about going into 8th grade. But 8th grade would never happen. At age 14, he would be struck and killed riding his bike during summer break.

After Kevin passed away staff members decided to create something in his memory, and the Kevin Vasquez Resilience Award was born, to be presented to the student who was most improved and had achieved their goals, not giving up and persevering through adversity – all those things that Kevin exhibited.

Tajhmir and Juliza were in Kevin’s class. They had talked about the award from the first day of school.

“Taj came to us with some of the same issues as Kevin,” Lundy says. “He went from struggling in school to perfect attendance. He is also a two-sport athlete and exhibits everything that Kevin represented.”

Tajhmir was Kevin’s friend. They came to Camelot from the same school, Veterans Memorial Intermediate.

“I was very surprised when they announced my name for the award. It means a lot to me,” he says. “When I hear ‘resilience’ it means you have to keep pushing through all the time, even when you’re having a bad day. That’s what Kevin did and that’s what I’m doing.”

Juliza had been to several alternative schools. She was very quiet, distant and most of all angry. She struggled to handle the norms and expectations of the Camelot program.

Juliza says she just got tired of getting into trouble.

“I didn’t want to be at Camelot when I first got here. But no matter what I did the staff here didn’t give up on me. That’s what was different. And I finally realized I needed to do something different,” she says.

Mr. Lundy says it’s important that Camelot’s students know that the staff loves them.

“I actually cried at our awards ceremony. I got caught up in the moment, not just for Juliza but for all the Kevin Vasquez’s, all the kids who are struggling, who just need somebody to talk to em, need somebody in a time of need, that’s who we are. We want them to do great things and hopefully help somebody else.”

The Camelot climate has worked for Tajhmir.

“I just wake up in a good mood. I really like it here and am happy to be here. And when I have to be corrected it just makes me stronger,” he says.

What does Tajhmir and Juliza’s growth say about Camelot?

“I think it says consistency, Lundy says. “The work isn’t easy. It comes down to reinforcing the same thing every day. It can be frustrating, but you feel blessed when you get these kinds of results.

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