They first walked in homeless or needing help, but on Friday, nearly two dozen graduates at Covenant House Missouri had more to celebrate than earning their GED or high school diploma.
They learned they would leave with full-tuition scholarships, including room and board, at the four-year university, junior college, trade or technical school of their choice, thanks to an anonymous donor.
"Unbelievable," said Deland McAlister, 21, one of those in cap and gown who earned his GED diploma after taking classes at the building on North Kingshighway.
McAlister and the other graduates had no idea a big surprise was coming at the ceremony Friday. Before she made the announcement, Executive Director Sue Wagener told the group to think about where they once were and how far they had come. But she also asked them where they were going next. You have much more to achieve, she said.
And they were going to have help, Wagener said, struggling to speak through emotions.
As the magnitude of the donation registered with the room, people began to applaud. The graduates looked at the crowd, overwhelmed.
"I wasn't expecting that," said Melissa Campbell, 19, afterward. "I wanted to go to college, but I didn't know where because it's expensive."
Covenant House provides 24-hour crisis services, including a place to stay, GED and employment training classes, to those ages 16 to 21 who are homeless or considered at risk. The young adults seek out the help on their own, and are not placed at Covenant House by any state agency.
Last year, 291 entered the crisis program. Many began GED classes with a sixth-grade reading and math level, said Rick Davis, advancement officer for Covenant House.
About 57 percent of those in the program come from outside the city of St. Louis. Pamela Nihells, 19, was in Southern Illinois with no place to live. Feeling like she had nowhere to turn, she Googled "homeless youth" and ended up on the Covenant House website.
"I felt like I was in the dark and they brought me to a star," said Nihells, who earned her GED diploma and started taking community college classes. She wants to go into social work. "All the people here have brought me to the person I am."
Tears continued even after the ceremony for Maria Geraci, a caseworker. She said the challenges the group, including Nihells, has overcome are amazing.
"She came in here broken, and not sure what to do with her life," Geraci said.
Marcus White, 19, said he was kicked out of his school in Normandy for fighting. When he came to Covenant House for GED classes, they told him the past didn't matter.
On Friday, he held his 1-year-old son during the ceremony.
"The staff, they stay on you to make sure you're going to be something," White said.
Both Ranken Technical College and Hickey College told Covenant House staff they were ready to accept the graduates. They have the chance to get on the path to a lifelong career and independence, Wagener said.
"It will open doors," she said. "It's not enough to have a high school diploma anymore."
Before the scholarship announcement, none of the graduates had applied to a four-year college.
"I know that due to today's announcement, plans are changing and evolving," Davis said.
Now, the next challenge for these graduates will be believing in themselves, Wagener said.
"The biggest hurdle for them is really, 'Can I even do it?'" she said.
John Fritsche, a retired Illinois teacher who volunteers at Covenant House, told the group before the scholarship announcement that in some ways, they were better off than many students.
"You've learned to survive, and you've learned to value education," he told them. "But you're not finished. You're not nearly finished."