Like his classmates at Peñasco High School, José Velarde, known to friends and family as JJ, was upset not to walk up on a stage and accept his high school diploma.

But for Velarde the struggle to finish school and graduate with his class had been a mountain of challenges, ones he faced from the day he was born.

"He was so excited and happy," about graduation, said his mother, Cecelia Velarde, in an email. "He worked so hard to get here. It meant the world to him. He tried his hardest to get good grades, to make his teacher proud and pass to the next grade."

He was devastated, said his mom, when he found out the school couldn't hold the usual commencement ceremony because of the ongoing state efforts to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

So he settled instead for a drive-by celebration and parade outside of his home in Ojo Sarco on Saturday afternoon (May 23). It included a ride in a firetruck for JJ and a huge card signed by residents of the small mountain village south of Taos.

"The hometown graduate, also a multimedal winning Special Olympian, sat in a fire truck as the community paraded by him outside his home, and then joined them in a parade through Ojo Sarco," said Taos News freelance photographer John Denne, who was there for the event.

JJ, 18, was born with Dandy-Walker Syndrome, a malformation of the portion of the brain that controls behavior, movement and cognitive ability. His mother said fluid built up in her infant son's brain and he had to have a shunt to drain it.

His difficulties didn't stop his parents from ensuring he had access to education early on. He started prekindergarten in Peñasco at age 3. "He didn't know how to walk or talk yet," said his mother. "They taught him in sign language to help him communicate with others. He got to be in regular education classroom with his class."

As JJ grew older, "I feel like he wanted to be like his classmates," said Ceceilia Velarde. "He wanted to be normal."

He struggled to learn, said his mom. He didn't give up. "Peñasco Independent School District has been good to him. They have worked hard to get help for him," said Cecelia. "He has learned so much from them."

Those who know him say he has a great sense of humor. And he never quits.

At age 8, he was one of five kids in the first Special Olympics Peñasco team. "He was the youngest one. He had a hard time with it because it was different and he had to push himself," said his mother. "He never gives up."

Beth Grimm has known JJ since he was a year old, first as his physical therapist and then as one of his two coaches with the Special Olympics team. "He has grown and matured so wonderfully. It is awesome to see," said Grimm.

"He has a great sense of humor. He's a comedian. Very shy at first, but once he gets to know you, he's very funny. And he works really hard.

"He's a special, special guy," said Grimm.

JJ participated in bowling, track and field. He went from walking the 50-meter and 100-meter events with assistance to running in the 100-meter, 200-meter and relay events. He's medaled in multiple events over his 11 years with the team. Last year he was an assistant student coach and this year he would have been the student coach until all events were canceled due to the pandemic.

Cecelia doesn't know what is next for her son. If he could go to college - find a college that would take him - he would like to work on classic cars or take culinary classes. "He wants to do college," she said. "All his friends are going. We'll try and see if we can get him to do a class or two in college."

Whatever is next, JJ is a "happy guy," said his mom. "He loves animals. Every time he sees a dog or animals that are different, he would say, 'They are special, like me.'"

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