BROOKSVILLE — Melissa Dolin has been in school since she was 3 years old. Now 18, she will graduate from Central High School tonight.
And then, she will return to Central, where she will continue to attend classes until March 1, 2015, which will be her 22nd birthday.
Melissa has autism, and through a special program she has been able to work on employment skills, such as cleaning the café and recycling. She also has been working on social and communication skills.
"She will graduate with a special diploma so she cannot attend traditional college, but she can attend school in the county until the age of 22," explained her mother, Mary Ellen Cascio.
Central High School offered a special needs graduation ceremony for the first time this year, but Melissa opted to attend the general graduation.
"Melissa is upbeat, lovable and very smart, but autism limits her comprehension,'' her mother said. "For the average child, being happy and optimistic, looking forward to a bright future is the norm.
"But for those like Melissa, what she is about to achieve is a miracle."
Cathy Cimino, a one-on-one assistant to Melissa since sixth grade, is impressed with the progress she has seen in her student over the years.
"It's amazing," Cimino said. "She's calmed down so much. She's a very intelligent girl, excellent reader, excellent speller."
Michael Pilla, Central's employment specialist, works with students in the Community Based Vocational Education program.
"Melissa's one of most conscientious students and a benefit to all the campus. I can't say enough about her," he said.
Melissa's brother, Michael Dolin, 20, is preparing for medical school at the University of Tampa.
He's proud of his sister.
"It's an exciting time for her and there will be a time for her to experience new opportunities," he said, "(and) hopefully find a job that she can excel at."
Melissa's autism is typical, her mother said, and she will make eye contact and hug and is very social. Cascio said Melissa is an honor roll student who enjoys basketball and soccer and has lots of interests and hobbies.
She likes to swim and has a swimsuit collection. She loves new clothes. She has an electric piano and enjoys music and singing. She likes flip-flops, reading and writing. And she's very tidy.
As Melissa approaches her final school years, her parents (Cascio and George Dietlein) wonder what the girl who has been in school most of her life will do when she leaves Central.
She can't be left alone, which is why Melissa has had Cimino with her all this time. "She doesn't have fear," Cimino said.
There is time to explore the future. For now, there is a major milestone to be celebrated.
"I'm very happy that she's gotten to this point," Cascio said. "I'm very happy that she's graduating."