Five small children donned red graduation caps and gowns with purple stoles Thursday at the Aiken County First Steps organization’s first-ever graduation ceremony.

The children and their parents celebrated completing the Parents as Teachers program for children from birth to 3 years old in the Foundational Program. They will transition to the next level for children ages 3 to 5, the Approaches to Learning Step Up Plan Program.

Barbara Sanders, lead parent educator at Aiken County First Steps, said the organization wanted to recognize the parents and children for their hard work, especially families speaking two languages at home. The staff distributed event programs in both English and Spanish.

First Steps honored these children and their parents: Diego Mauricio Bahena Montoya and his parents, Angela Montoya-Cano and Joel Bahena Martinez; Christianna Ta’Mya Bell and her mother, Tayneisha Nicole Pope; Titan Amir Bing and his mother, Ashley Nicole Bing; Fabiola Evangelista Cruz and her parents, Eldaa C. Cruz-Moyeda and Salomon Evangelista-Becrril; Kendrick Justiniano Luna and his parents, Mary Gisselle Luna Centeno and Tomas Justiniano.

Mia Victoria Delgado-Quinones and her parents, Mariam C. Quinones-Negron and Roberto Delgado-Jiminez, were not present at the ceremony.

As a surprise, another graduate was honored at the ceremony.

Jakovia Raiford, an assistant at the First Steps office, earned her associate’s degree from the University of South Carolina Salkehatchie, where she played basketball. Raiford will be attending USC Aiken in the fall.

Because Raiford was unable to attend her college graduation due to COVID-19, the First Steps staff celebrated her achievement during the ceremony. She wore her cap and gown, and Sanders and First Steps Executive Director Marcia Nash gave her a gift basket.

The children received gift bags and got to keep their caps and gowns. For Sanders, the event was a heartwarming way to celebrate the children’s achievements.

"It was like watching your child graduate,” Sanders said. “I feel like, yes, they have different parents, but these are my own children, and it's great seeing them do milestones. This is a first for them, and it's a first for a lot of our parents to see their children achieve something."

Pope was honored alongside her daughter Christianna Ta’Mya Bell. Mothers at the event received a $60 gift card, a potted flower and a goody bag.

"I'm more happy than she is. She doesn't know what's going on, but I'm excited," Pope said.

Pope said she would like to congratulate all the 2020 graduates who were unable to celebrate this year due to COVID-19.

First Steps is a nonprofit and state agency in South Carolina that helps children from birth to age 5 get ready for school and life, according to the organization’s website. The Aiken County office offers several early childhood services, including Parents as Teachers and transitioning to kindergarten.

In the Parents as Teachers program, First Steps provides home-visits with parent educators to help facilitate young children’s learning. For more information, visit scfirststeps.org/supporting-the-family-parents-as-teachers/.

The graduation flyer says the children will continue developing their language, cognitive, socio-emotional and motor development skills in the next step of the Parents as Teachers program.

For more information about Aiken County First Steps and to see if your family qualifies for any of their services, call the office at 803-306-1343.