Story by Kelly Harley• Photos from the family
Graduating from high school is an exciting time in a person’s life. The accomplishments, the friends, the parties, and a promise that your next adventure is waiting for you, is something many students will never forget. For one Effingham County High School senior, his graduation is extra special. There was a time in his life when his father wasn’t sure his son would graduate with a regular diploma, let alone leave such a big impression on those around him. On May 26, 19-year-old Trey Jernigan proudly donned his cap and gown and walked across the stage. He did it; he received his high school diploma. Overcoming Challenges When Trey was four years old, he was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, also known as Asperger’s. Many professionals consider Asperger’s a less severe form of autism. When Trey’s father, Albert Jernigan, learned of his son’s diagnosis, he vowed never to let his son believe he couldn’t do what he wanted to. “My son has never been told he can’t do something,” says Albert. “He had some special education classes and extra support along the way to help him succeed. I was always very careful because I wanted him to get the extra help, but never more than he needed.” Albert is a single father. He also is raising his daughter, Sarah, who is entering her junior year of high school. Many years back, Albert started his own business so his schedule would work better for his children, especially when it came to Trey and making all his doctor appointments and school meetings. Not only does Trey have Asperger’s, but he is also an insulin-diabetic. Just recently he’s been able to lower the number of daily insulin shots. For five years, he was getting four shots a day. His father remembers when Trey was in elementary school, he would always play by himself. It wasn’t until he entered middle school, that he started to socialize with other students. In high school, he stood out even more. “One of his best friends was the football quarterback. His friends embraced Trey when he attended his junior and senior proms. He just became a more outgoing person,” says Albert. Standing Out The impression Trey made on his friends and his teachers was best noted at his graduation. He was presented with the
Principal’s Award, a long-standing award at Effingham County High School. This award is given to one student each year. Trey nor his family had any idea he was the recipient. “When Mrs. Dickerson first started talking, I didn’t know she was talking about me. Then after a little bit, I realized it was me and I got excited,” says Trey.
“There are many things I considered when deciding which student would receive this award. Out of these character traits, the one that would truly describe this student is perseverance. I have known this student since sixth grade and he is one of the happiest people I know. He always has a smile on his face and a hug if you allow. He moves through school with determination and urgency and sometimes doesn’t even slow down for the person in front of him. Although traditional school is not his strongest attribute, he came and maintained. School never seemed to be a bother or a chore but instead an opportunity and an experience. He never meets a stranger or someone he would not speak to. He sees everyone as a friend and assumes you see him as a friend as well.” “Trey is an inspiration. The way he responds to the world around him is with a sincere happy attitude,” says Amie Dickerson, principal, Effingham County High School. It’s that sincerity that his father says is one of his son’s greatest assets. “One week after graduation, one of his friends dropped by to show Trey his new truck. That made my son so happy. And me, too. His friends care about him,”
adds Albert. He’s touched so many lives that even his first grade teacher, who now lives in Virginia, came to see Trey graduate.
– Amie Dickerson, principal, Effingham County High School.
Not only did Trey embrace school, but he was also very involved in Future Farmers of America (FFA). He never missed one meeting and was noted as always being willing to help. “Being part of FFA was great for Trey. I think it helped promote his social skills and gave him a purpose,” says Albert. Last year, Trey received an award for his involvement in FFA. He was presented with an FFA blanket. Albert laughs when he thinks of Trey’s dedication to the club. “At the end of each meeting, he wanted to know exactly when the next meeting was going to be.” The Future for Trey There’s no doubt, Trey’s future will be one of success. In his short 19 years, he’s
already made great improvements. Albert remembers he would have to contain his son in his room at night so he couldn’t get out. He started with baby gates and eventually had to come up with a better solution. “Trey was in his room and I accidentally dozed off. Suddenly, I heard my truck running in the garage. Trey had managed to climb the baby gate, get my keys and start my truck. The scariest part was my daughter was standing behind the truck and Trey put the truck in drive and hit the wall. It could have been my daughter if he had reversed.” After that incident, Albert came up with a solution that involved a self-made door with a deadbolt and wooden bars that allowed Trey to still seeout. He just couldn’t open the door. When Trey was around 12, his father put on a regular door. He trusted Trey would be OK. Other memories Albert shares include never being able to leave Trey alone. If he needed to run to the store for bread, Trey went. If he had to work, sometimes Trey and his sister would have to sit in the truck and wait for their father to finish a job. Now, Trey stays home by himself. It’s these small milestones that Albert says are encouraging. When school starts back, Albert says he will start helping his son find a job. “He can do something. He has a capable body and I’ve never set limits on what he can do,” says Albert. Albert does agree that the job will have to be somewhere Trey feels comfortable. “I’m hoping maybe he can find a job at one of his old schools. He would feel safe there. I admit, sending him out into the big world is a little scary.” Several things still undecided is whether Trey will ever drive. His father says at this point Trey says he doesn’t want to. Another unknown is whether Trey will ever live by himself. Albert says it’s a wait and see kind of process. One known, though, is Trey’s ability to live life to the fullest and overcome difficulties. Albert says he is very proud of his son for all that he has accomplished. “I’m proud of his award, I’m proud he graduated with his class, and I’m proud that he treats everyone with kindness and compassion.” Trey is also proud of his accomplishments. “Graduating from high school made me happy and I’m proud because school is tough. At the same time, I’m glad it’s over,” says Trey.