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U-Conjay Nelson (left) hands to commander’s sword to Brandon Gadson at the Change of Command ceremony for Mooseheart’s NJROTC unit.
2013 change-unarmed drill: Mooseheart’s Unarmed Drill Team puts on an exhibition during the 2013 Change of Command ceremony, which took place May 3 in the school’s fieldhouse.
2013 change-frosh guidon: Mooseheart eight-grader Aishah Adebyo carries the “Class of 2017” guidon after the incoming freshman platoon was introduced during the NJROTC Change of Command ceremony at Mooseheart.
Mooseheart, May 9 – As U-Conjay Nelson stepped to the microphone to deliver her remarks as outgoing Company Commander of Mooseheart's Naval Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps (NJROTC) unit, most in the audience had no idea the impacting speech they were about to hear.
Instead of merely some platitudes to her time at Mooseheart and some exhortations about prosperous futures, Nelson told a story – her story, but also Mooseheart's story as well -- to the May 3 crowd before she handed the sword of command to incoming Commander Brandon Gadson.
Nelson started by repeating core principles of the NJROTC program – Honor, Courage and Commitment, and mentioned these were at the center of her Mooseheart campus, as well as NJROTC.
"The courage to lend a hand to families in-need," Nelson said. "The commitment to help kids like me with my background. Having the honor of being the reason so many students become something more than the environment they grew up in."
"Kids like me." Nelson described how her mother, a Liberian national, came to the U.S. while pregnant, and Nelson was born months later, but life was difficult from the beginning.
"I spent the first four years of my life homeless," Nelson said.
When she was five, Nelson's mother found a job working at an airport, but became ill and eventually had to stop working.
"After school, I took care of her, and when I put her to bed, I started on my homework," Nelson said. "When I got done, I went to go to bed. This process became known as 'my life.'"
Nelson came to Mooseheart in eighth grade, and did not immediately see it for all that it could be in her life, saying she initially considered her time on the campus "a sentence." She said she smiled, but that those smiles were faked.
"But my smile soon became permanent, and making the best of everything no longer became work," Nelson said. "When you've had the background that I've had, the littlest things make the biggest difference to you."
After she concluded her remarks, the change of command took place and Gadson issued his first order to the Mooseheart Corps. He will lead the unit through the end of the 2012-13 school year and into the next year until he hands the command to his successor, in May 2014.
"It's been stressful but it's been fun," Nelson said. "It kept me plenty busy. I stayed out of trouble because I had so much to do."
In its formative years, one of Mooseheart's mottos was "The school that trains for life." Nelson said that the education she has received, in the school as well as in the NJROTC program have proven that this motto is still firmly in-place.
"Every day in class, we have a conversation about something that's going to help me in the future when I leave Mooseheart," Nelson said. "We have talked about things like buying a car, finding a place to live, or taking out a loan. It's been really helpful."
A military career is not in Nelson's immediate future as she prepares for the school's May 25 graduation and then the start of her freshman year at Northern Illinois University.
"In the future – maybe," Nelson said. "There's a big possibility."
Of those impressed by Nelson's remarks was U.S. Navy Warrant Officer (Ret.) Rick Smith, the lead officer of Mooseheart's NJROTC program.
"I thought it was a great representation of Mooseheart itself and the success of this place," Smith said. "It was all spelled out in her speech. She talked about being homeless, and she leaves Mooseheart as the Company Commander of NJROTC. That's a fine accomplishment and she's a fine person too."
Gadson said he was told he was to be the new Company Commander immediately prior to the start of the Change of Command ceremony.
"It's kind of a shock," Gadson said. "We have a lot of good leaders in my class and a lot of people who could have stepped up. It's great that it was decided that it was to be me."
Gadson has been at Mooseheart since 2008, arriving as a seventh-grader. NJROTC is mandatory for all high school students at Mooseheart, and Gadson said he has enjoyed his time in the program, and looks forward to his senior year as Company Commander.
"I feel it encourages us to do well." Gadson said. "It teaches you all the morals you need in life and it's a great guideline to help anyone succeed."
Where Nelson had a successful year, Smith said he looks forward to working with Gadson in the coming year.
"I think people respect him because he's not the type of person who lives just for himself," Smith said. "When we were talking with people to decide who would take over, a lot of the answers revolved around themselves. (Gadson) is thinking about taking care of his mother. He was thinking of somebody else – and you want someone in charge who's thinking about the whole unit."
MOOSEHEART NJROTC RECEIVES UNIT ACHIEVEMENT AWARD: Smith said he learned two days prior to the Change of Command that the Mooseheart NJROTC was the recipient of the Unit Achievement Award for the second consecutive year. The unit will receive a ribbon to attach to its flag. Among other ingredients to Mooseheart's success were Cody Henderson's prowess with an air rifle and the competence of the unit's academic team.
Upcoming Events at Mooseheart
May 16: Spring Band and Choral Concert, 2:15 p.m., House of God
May 18: 10th Annual Blessing of the Bikes, 9 a.m., Mooseheart Fieldhouse, House of God
May 20, Memorial Day Program, 3 p.m., House of God
May 23, Honors and Awards Program, 1 p.m., Mooseheart Fieldhouse
May 25, High School Commencement, 3:30 Mooseheart Fieldhouse and Stadium
July 27, Mooseheart Centennial Celebration, Mooseheart Fieldhouse and Stadium
Since its founding, Mooseheart has operated a complete, accredited kindergarten-through-high-school academic program, plus art, music, vocational training and interscholastic sports. It is an extremely nurturing and student-tailored program, with an average student-teacher ratio of 12-1.
Mooseheart students who complete their studies with a 3.0 GPA or better (4.0=A) are eligible for up to five years of annually renewable scholarship funding, covering tuition, room and board in an amount comparable to that required for an in-state student at an Illinois public university.
Mooseheart is currently home to roughly 215 students, ranging in age from preschoolers to high school seniors. Applications for admission to Mooseheart are considered from any family whose children are, for whatever reason, lacking a stable home environment. Mooseheart boasts its own U.S. Post Office and a fully functioning branch of Fifth Third Bank.
In addition to Mooseheart, Moose International also supports Moosehaven, a 70-acre retirement community near Jacksonville, FL founded in 1922; and conducts more than $70 million worth of community service programs annually.