Graduating high school senior Jared Barnes; the 'Class of 2020' stuffed elephant Rabia Sulayman made for several students

A Philadelphia public school teacher raised more than $20k in scholarships for graduating seniors and connected thousands of them to gifts, cash donations and ongoing mentorship.

Kelli Wyatt never thought her Adopt a High School Senior 2020 Facebook group would get so big.

“I thought we would help a couple kids…do it for a week or two and go back to our normal lives,” said Wyatt, who lives in Elkins Park and teaches literacy at Kenderton Elementary. “Never did I expect to start a scholarship fund and raise over $20,000 in two weeks.”

Since she started the project last month, Wyatt has been overwhelmed with positive responses. The FB group has more than 6,000 members, with another 7,000 or so joins requested and awaiting approval.

For some of the teens on the receiving end, the effects have been similarly overwhelming, in a good way.

“I was just surprised that people believed in me,” said Jared Barnes, a soon-to-be Prep Charter High School grad. “And were generous enough and wanted to adopt me.”

Wyatt’s two kids aren’t yet seniors in high school. But when she realized Philly’s collection of high school seniors would this year be robbed of their milestones, like prom and graduation, she wanted to help.

Hearing about the national effort to provide new graduates with gifts and resources, Wyatt decided to try to localize it — connecting Philly seniors to virtual support systems from adults.

Within three days of launching the page on April 18, Wyatt had 3,000 members.

“The first few days I was literally watching it 24 hours a day. My eyes were tired,” she said. “It’s become a labor of love.”

Membership eventually got so high that Wyatt opted to create a scholarship fund separate from the adoption matchups. The Facebook fundraiser has brought in almost $25,000 so far — distributed through random giveaways to students in the group.

Credit: Facebook

Money, connections and fuzzy comfort

Wyatt’s Facebook group doesn’t actually include students as members.

Parents request to join the group, then post a bio and a few photos of their 12th-grade offspring. Other adults who join can scroll through and decide to “adopt” any of the teens based on their parents’ posts.

Each senior can get adopted by up to three people. The adopters can do…basically whatever their heart tells them. They can send cash via Venmo or Cash App. They can mail cards or gift baskets, or simply a message to offer moral support.

And since the students aren’t actually allowed in the group, it’s always a surprise when they receive a gift from a stranger.

Barnes’ mom, Juanita Moore, posted about her Prep Charter son in the group near the end of April. He’d been particularly excited about prom, with a suit all picked out. Moore even took her son’s date to a seamstress to make a custom, matching gown.

“That part broke his heart,” Moore said. “My son shed tears about that. He was so looking forward to that.”

Through the Facebook group, Barnes got a few CashApp contributions, which he’ll use to help pay for a new laptop to take with him to Shippensburg University in the fall. He also got connected with a woman whose son attends the same university.

“Now I have somebody that I know up there,” Barnes said. “Instead of going up there without anyone, I mean, I’m a very friendly person, but it always helps to know at least one person.”

Some parents with their own graduating seniors are paying it forward.

To offer some comfort to her soon-to-be graduate daughter, Malikah, Rabia Sulayman hand-sewed a stuffed elephant with “Class of 2020” embroidered inside one of the ears. When Sulayman discovered the Facebook group, she adopted six other high school seniors, and started sewing elephants for each of them.

“This group is unbelievable,” Sulayman said. “It just really touched me. I’m going to keep trying to adopt them and encourage them and help whoever I can.”

Meanwhile, the group’s creator just hopes the underlying message is resonating.

“In this time of uncertainty, we’re still rooting for you,” Wyatt said. “You don’t have to be my son for me to recognize you’re losing something. We understand what you’re going though and want you to keep pressing forward. You’re not losing this in vain.”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...