At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.

Adoption program makes senior year special for SMHS students

SMHS senior Brianna Buchanan fans out the cards she’s received from the Smoky Mountain High School Adopt-A-Senior program. Donated photo SMHS senior Brianna Buchanan fans out the cards she’s received from the Smoky Mountain High School Adopt-A-Senior program. Donated photo

The arrival of COVID-19 in the United States caused a storm of cancelations, closures, warnings and fears, but there’s one in particular that hit home for Smoky Mountain High School senior Ryan Holler. 

“When I realized it was going to impact me personally was when Robotics Club got put on hold,” said Holler. 

Holler and his team had been working hard on their robot, which to compete in the games had to play a basketball-like game with other robots using foam balls. They’d had some pretty huge competitions back in March, and the team was headed to regionals in hopes of making it all the way to the state competition. Holler thought they had a pretty good chance. But overnight the world changed. It was all canceled. 

“I don’t have a car right now or my license, actually, so I’m just stuck inside all the time,” he said. “There’s no real chance to go anywhere. It’s a bummer when you’re sitting in the same house for eight or nine hours on end.”

Ashley Miller, who is a counselor at Fairview Elementary School and mother of an SMHS senior, said the cancelations hit her daughter hard too. She saw her go through the stages of grief, starting off with denial and anger. Miller and Misty Fisher, who has a son in the SMHS Class of 2020, decided to do something to help. They organized an Adopt-A-Senior program.

The program gives community members the opportunity to “adopt” a 2020 senior, which basically involves sending a care package, a message, a gift — something to let them know that they’re special, and to recognize their accomplishments. 

“Part of our goal was to give them another rite of passage,” said Miller. “This will be different. This will be something memorable so you can say this is what we did our senior year.”

Holler was adopted right off the bat by his uncle, who sent him a Funko pop figure. But then a few days later he got a giant box containing snacks and a $25 gift card — his uncle was not the only person who decided to adopt him. 

Brianna Buchanan, also a SMHS senior, had a similar experience. She was upset to miss out on those senior milestones like prom and graduation, but it meant a lot to her to receive gifts and support from so many people in the community. 

“I love the support that we’re getting from multiple people that don’t even know us,” Buchanan said. 

There have been so many touching stories to come out of the adoptions, said Miller. One teen who dealt with severe emotional struggles this year saw his mindset completely shift when he got his first gift. A girl whose mom died this year ended up talking on the phone with her adopter. 

“Having that person reach out to her during a situation where you really need your mom — it touched her,” said Miller. 

“There’s a lot of kids out there that don’t have a strong network, so having people reach out to them right now has made them realize that I am somebody special, regardless,” she added.

Of the 201 seniors in the class, 170 have been adopted. Some of the 31 remaining seniors haven’t been adopted because Miller wasn’t able to get in touch with them, and some didn’t want to participate. Two have already left to join the military. But participation opportunities are still available — those interested can contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

For her own daughter, said Miller, the program did a lot to dispel that anger and disbelief and move the grieving process toward its conclusion. 

“She’s pretty much accepted it and is mainly putting her focus on going to college and just working on that process and moving on,” said Miller. 

Jackson County Public Schools still plans to have a graduation ceremony but has moved it forward two months to Aug. 2. Prom will be held either July 30 or Aug. 1. 

Holler and Buchanan both said they’re looking forward to it, and are even grateful. Holler has a cousin in Atlanta who won’t get to have a graduation ceremony at all, so he’s glad he goes to a smaller, more rural school where postponement is possible. And Buchanan has a very good reason to be happy that graduation has been moved forward. Her brother is gone for basic training and wouldn’t have been able to make the original date. 

“The only thing I would say quarantine did in my favor was pushed it back for my brother to actually be there,” she said. 

The Class of 2020 has had a unique experience, to say the least, but senior year is a beginning as well as an end. In the fall, Holler is heading to Southwestern Community College to study robotics, and Buchanan — who as a dual enrollment student already holds a business certificate — will earn her accounting certificate, also from SCC, so that she can join the accounting department of her family’s construction business. 

“I think we have to look at it like a loss,” said Miller. “We have to help them through it, and they’ll be fine. They will.”

Go to top