Degrees of separation

Deployed soldiers grateful for school's attempt to livestream graduation

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For parents of a graduating high school senior, there are very few things that could prevent them from witnessing their child receive their diploma and share in their moment of achievement. Unfortunately, for Donna Ortiz and Carlos Barbeiro, a deployment overseas is one of those few things that you can’t simply take a week off from.

“Sacrifice is a term known well too often for those who serve and their families,” said Barbeiro, a Sergeant First Class in the Rhode Island Army National Guard, and father of two, currently stationed in Iraq as part of Operation Inherent Resolve. “It is without question one of the hardest challenges we all face in our day to day lives.”

Donna Ortiz is a Command Sergeant Major in the U.S. Army Reserves who is currently serving in Kuwait as part of Operating Enduring Freedom. She said that although she has become accustomed to missing out on celebrations during her 30-year career with the Reserves and has been separated from her family in the past, she has always been comforted knowing her parents were able to care for her two daughters.

“With all that being said, nothing compares to knowing I was going to miss out on these graduations,” she said. “To say I was heartbroken is an understatement. I won’t lie, I cried like a baby.”

Barbeiro’s son, Damian, and Ortiz’s daughter, Alejandra, were both set to graduate from Pilgrim High School on June 6. Barbeiro said he was trying to coordinate some family members broadcasting the graduation through FaceTime video, but Ortiz had a different plan in mind.

She recalled when her cousin’s son had graduated from North Kingstown in 2017, and how the school had streamed the whole event live so those who couldn’t secure a ticket could still watch. She asked her cousin’s daughter, who still attends North Kingstown High School, to inquire from the principal how the stream was set up. When the principal answered, she forwarded the emails along to Pilgrim Principal Gerald Habershaw, who got right to work with school district IT Director Doug Alexander.

Alexander described on Tuesday how getting the live stream set up at Pilgrim was a collaborative effort. He worked with the North Kingstown-based Ocean State Higher Education Economic Development and Administrative Network (OSHEAN), which worked to help set up the services free of charge at the Community College of Rhode Island. He even had to borrow a streaming camera from a Pilgrim faculty member.

Both Barbeiro and Ortiz tuned in at 1 a.m. local time to follow the stream. Unfortunately, due to bandwidth limitations at his base, Barbeiro’s stream wasn’t able to load. Ortiz dealt with buffering and a freezing connection as well but was ultimately able to see at least some of the ceremony.

“It was definitely an emotional night for me,” Ortiz said. “I was so extremely proud of Alejandra, not only for graduating with honors but also for her inner strength to persevere in the midst of a trying time in her life. At the same time, I felt disappointed and heartbroken that I could not be there. It was absolutely bittersweet.”

“As you can image I was disappointed I didn’t get to see him [Damian] cross the stage,” Barbeiro reflected. “I went to bed around 3 a.m. with that in my head. The next morning when I woke I received photos and a video clip of him walking the stage. That made me happy.”

While there is not much that could be done domestically about internet connectivity problems in the Middle East, both soldiers expressed their genuine appreciation for everything that Pilgrim High School staff and administrators did trying to get them access to one of the most important days for their kids, and for them as well.

“To Principal Habershaw and IT Director Alexander, thank you for not giving up and pushing through all the technical difficulties to live stream the graduation,” Ortiz said. “I will forever treasure what you did for me in order to see my daughter cross the graduation stage.”

“I would also like to recognize the faculty, staff, coaches and friends of Pilgrim High School for their support and efforts for the live stream, and the four years of education, life lessons, team building, and memories you have provide to our kids and our families,” Barbeiro said. “You all impact the future of our society in ways unimaginable. It can be a thankless profession at times, to you I say thank you and I salute you.”

The connection shared between Barbeiro and Ortiz goes well beyond their service to the Army, their Warwick residency and even their shared plight to not miss out on another memory with their kids. The two are close friends, family actually, as Alejandra and Damian met during their junior year at Pilgrim and hit it off. They are currently dating.

“Since then Damian and Carlos have become family,” Ortiz said. “Carlos checks up on me from time to time, making sure I’m okay, and cheering me up when I need it. He has been my rock and I can’t thank him enough for his continual support. As for Damian, he is an amazing young man with the biggest heart. He gives me peace of mind knowing he is there for my daughter. Thank you Damian, you know I absolutely I adore you.”

“I would like to thank Donna (Ortiz) for her determination to see this all the way through and keeping me in the mix,” Barbeiro said. “She has been a part of my support system while deployed. It can be challenging to have to ‘suck it up’ as she would say at times, but nice knowing we are going through it together.”

Ortiz expressed the utmost pride in her kids. Her eldest daughter, Thalia, just received her master’s degree in marketing from Providence College in May.

“To my girls, Thalia and Alejandra, you are my true love, my motivation and the reason I do what I do,” said Ortiz. “Your determination and drive, not to mention emotional strength, was evident at graduation and I’m beyond proud. I love you.”

Barbeiro, likewise, made clear his love and admiration for Damian, while also thanking Alejandra for helping him get his grades up. Fittingly enough, he said that his last action prior to deploying last October while working as a recruiter was signing up Damian for the Rhode Island National Guard.

“He was my last enlistment,” he said. “The one thing you have said your whole life is how all you wanted to do is make me proud. You did, and always have. I love you.”

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