APPLE VALLEY — Born prematurely and with little chance of survival, 18-year-old Matthew Rollins watched from his front yard as a parade of well-wishers drove by his home in Desert Knolls.
Rollins’ high school graduation celebration on the morning of Friday, May 22, included a steady stream of brightly decorated vehicles occupied by family, friends, health providers, educators and community leaders from the High Desert, Arizona and throughout Southern California.
Dressed in his orange cap and gown, the Apple Valley High School graduate waved and shouted, "Hello, everybody!" as he clutched a bag of coins, his favorite gift.
The parade was a stand-in for the school’s traditional graduation ceremony, which was postponed after the state closed schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I planned to push Matthew across the stage in his wheelchair during the graduation ceremony at Newton Bass Stadium," said special education teacher Shellie Callaway. "But instead, I'm here sitting next to an amazing and phenomenal young man who means the world to me."
Born to Purple Heart Army veteran Marcus Rollins and his wife, Donna, Matthew Rollins is a home-hospital student who has never seen the inside of a classroom, but has excelled in all of his studies, according to his mother.
For the last 11 years, Callaway, who teaches at Yucca Loma Elementary School, has spent five hours a week and 20 hours over the summer instructing Matthew Rollins at his home.
After schools were temporarily closed in March, Callaway has used Facebook Messenger and ZOOM to instruct her students, including Rollins, who is "verbal, funny, and definitely a teenage boy," according to his family.
"This is a big day for Matthew, a two-pounder at birth who not only survived, but thrived despite 45 surgeries, countless setbacks, and multiple medical issues," Callaway said.
The group of mask-wearing visitors at the graduation party included Rollins’ sister, Abigail, his parents, neighbors, a pirate ship-themed float, an Apple Valley Fire Protection District ladder truck and an alligator from the Hesperia Zoo.
While a machine sent steady streams of bubbles into the air, many of Rollins’ supporters dropped off gifts and cards, and to grab a bag of free doughnuts provided by the family.
Overwhelmed with emotion, a couple of teary-eyed visitors approached the Rollinses in their driveway to exchange a few hugs.
Wearing her Victor Valley College cap and gown, neighbor Alyssa Anderson took photos of the front yard party and celebrated Matthew Rollins’ big day.
Anderson, who recently met the Rollins family, said she’ll graduate from VVC on June 13 and plans to attend Dixie University in Utah, where she’ll study early childhood development and special needs education.
"Matthew is truly amazing and if it wasn't for his fighting spirit and God, he wouldn’t be here today," said Donna Rollins, who laid down her RN badge and CPR business to look after her son and husband, who has cancer.
Born at 26 weeks, Matthew Rollins was diagnosed with multi-system organ failure from an unknown neurodegenerative cause. At that time, medical personnel said they did not expect the baby to survive and that the family should "let him go," said Donna Rollins, a native of New Zealand with dual citizenship.
"I told them that it wasn’t up to us to decide whether he lived or died," Donna Rollins said. "That decision belonged to Matthew and God."
Donna Rollins said Dr. Steven Dodds, a neonatologist who worked at St. Joseph Health, St. Mary in Apple Valley, was instrumental in saving her son’s life.
In 2010, Dodds earned a nomination as the Daily Press Person of the Year for his life-saving efforts with many children.
"Dr. Dodds works down the hill, but he and his daughter took the opportunity to drive up and stop by," Donna Rollins said. "He is an amazing man with a wonderful family."
Over the years, the Rollins family has aligned themselves with a solid support team of caregivers, therapists, social coaches, teachers, medical providers and their church family, Donna Rollins said.
"I thank the Apple Valley Unified School District who was willing to think outside the box by allowing Matthew to be taught at home," Donna Rollins said. "It takes a huge team of people to make sure that someone like Matthew not only survives, but also learns, grows and thrives."
Rene Ray De La Cruz may be reached at 760-951-6227, or by email at RDeLaCruz@VVDailyPress.com. Follow him on Twitter @DP_ReneDeLaCruz.