KIVA’s graduation wasn’t your typical commencement ceremony.

Young adults in Santa Fe Public Schools’ special-education program celebrated their 2019 graduation with a country line dance, song performances, a karate demonstration and a brief comedic act. Afterward, family and friends gathered in KIVA’s classroom at Nye Early Childhood Center. They were greeted with cupcakes and impromptu dancing to Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration.”

For KIVA’s three graduates — Yessica “Yessie” Saenzpardo, Anthony “AJ” Valenzuela and Nathaniel “Nate” Null — Wednesday’s ceremony was a bittersweet farewell to a curriculum they say has changed their lives. And while their futures, like the futures of most graduates, remain somewhat unclear, the trio, their teachers and family agree that because of KIVA, the graduates have gained skills necessary to live more independent, confident lives.

“It’s about finding what their strengths are and helping them build empowerment within themselves,” said Allison Hill, KIVA’s lead teacher. “They’ve grown in so many different ways. … I have a sense of pride, but they have a sense of pride within themselves.”

KIVA — an acronym for Keeping Independent Visions Alive — is a transitional program for youth with developmental, neurological disabilities.

Hill said students in the program are “challenged to grow both personally and professionally.”

In the classroom, she said, they learn how to write in cursive, type and manage finances. Additionally, they learn how to fill out job applications, cook simple meals and safely navigate public transportation services.

A big focus of KIVA, Hill said, is integrating the young adults, ages 18 to 22, into the community.

Throughout the year, KIVA’s 16 students split into groups and travel to various job sites around Santa Fe, including The Food Depot, Assistance Dogs of the West and the District Attorney’s Office. In these environments, students participate in a variety of tasks for up to an hour, such as shredding papers and organizing utensils. The labor, Hill said, aims to teach them how to act, dress and become comfortable in professional settings.

“They’re learning a certain level of independence that matches their abilities, and then pushing beyond that,” added Victoria Cross, a KIVA teacher.

For Null, who suffered a traumatic brain injury following an automobile accident at age 2, KIVA has mainly challenged him to get outside his comfort zone.

“It’s given him the ability to try different things, from changing oil in the car to karate,” said Vaughn Null, Nate’s father.

Over time, Hill said, Nate Null’s exposure to these things has helped him feel more secure.

Years ago, Null, now 22, was terrified of dogs. But since volunteering with Assistance Dogs of the West, Hill said, he is much more comfortable around the animals.

Similarly, Null acknowledged he used to be very timid speaking in front of crowds. Yet at his graduation, he came to the front of a stage and told a handful of jokes to an audience of at least 50 people without any sign of fear.

“Everything he does, he takes pride in,” said Vaughn, adding that without KIVA, opportunities for students with disabilities “can otherwise be dry.”

“Nate’s a little fighter,” Vaughn added. “He overcomes all the difficulties life’s given him.”

Monica Valenzuela said she has seen a similar shift in AJ, her only child, who was born with a seizure disorder that later caused a brain injury.

Today, “he wants to go to college, he wants to have a family,” she said, fighting back tears. “He has an army of goals, like everybody else.”

Going forward, Monica Valenzuela said, she expects her son to continue his education and possibly marry his girlfriend, Jomarie Ortiz, 20, also a KIVA student, whom he first met in Santa Fe High School’s special-education program.

Whatever he does, his mother said, success will be inevitable.

“He’s [already] done so many things they said he’d never do,” she said, adding that while AJ likely will always live at home and perhaps never live in a traditional adult setting, his hard work — like that of his classmates — should be equally valued.

“I’m so proud of him,” she said.

The dreams of these students aren’t very different from those of many recent graduates. One day, AJ Valenzuela said, he will be an actor on television. Null said he’d like to be a greeter at Sam’s Club and eventually a security guard or surveillance assistant. Yessie Saenzpardo said she just wants to keep helping others, however she can.

“She has such a big heart,” said Minerva Mireles, Saenzpardo’s mother, tears running down her cheeks.

Throughout her time at KIVA, Mireles said in Spanish, her daughter has spent a great deal of time helping Nye preschoolers as a teaching assistant, as well as volunteering with animals and babies. These opportunities have “been totally positive for her. … She seems more secure in herself.”

During the KIVA graduation, Null and one of his friends told jokes in hopes that “it makes your day brighter,” they said — slapping their knees and howling with laughter between each pun. And at the close of the ceremony, all the students danced with shameless, over-the-top moves to “Cupid Shuffle.”

It seemed every person in the audience couldn’t help but smile. That “contagious” joy, Hill said, is something the world can learn from.

“These students are my heroes. … I am truly honored to be their teacher, and yet, they teach me to enjoy life,” she said. “They see with their hearts, and they help make me a better person.”

Olivia Harlow is digital enterprise producer for Santa Fe New Mexican