STAMFORD -- After losing his father, dealing with his mother's alcohol addiction and suffering from emotional problems, Josh Brown said things didn't work out for him at either of the public high schools.
But the former student said he had a vision, which included "living well," and credits Schools Superintendent Winifred Hamilton and other mentors for placing him in the Stamford Public Schools' ARTS (Alternate Routes to Success) program and making that vision a reality.
"You're looking at someone who was homeless," Brown said. "Now I own two houses."
As Brown told his story Monday at this year's ARTS recognition ceremony at the Stamford Government Center, he drew gasps from the crowd. He said he found a successful career, managing a bank, and the students in attendance could do the same.
Brown said they have an option -- to either live or die. When you become an adult, he said, you have to stand on your own.
"I'm going nowhere but up," Brown said, enthusiastically. "I've already been at the bottom. If you want to do it, there's nobody that can stop you. I'm a living example."
At the annual ceremony, the program's 59 graduating high school seniors each collected a diploma and a single rose.
They will also walk at their upcoming district high school graduation ceremonies.
The ARTS program provides an opportunity for students who didn't find success at their respective high schools, officials said. That means providing classroom instruction and tutoring for students who have suffered mental, physical, behavioral and legal troubles.
Mike Meyer, Stamford's executive director for student support and special programs, said Monday's ceremony was a celebration of students who overcame challenges and proved wrong the people who said they couldn't do this.
Meyer said it wasn't easy, but the students pushed forward and graduated. He called this a culminating event, as well as the beginning of their lives.
"There are two questions you have to ask -- where am I going and how am I going to get there?" Meyer said. "You have to set a goal, a goal that's high."
Meyer said sometimes the students might go off their path, but they have to get back on. He told them to talk to family and friends about whether they're doing the right thing.
"Every day, you graduate," he said. "It's a process that goes on throughout your life."
Loraine Olson, vice president of the Stamford Board of Education, said the students didn't get there alone, and reminded them to thank their families and friends. She said not everyone does well in a traditional setting.
Olson told a story about a little girl who went to a pharmacy with $1.11, banged a quarter on the counter and asked to buy a miracle for her brother. The boy apparently had a tumor in his head. The pharmacist's brother took notice, examined the patient and performed surgery for free.
"How much did this miracle cost?" Olson asked the crowd.
She said people like Hamilton wanted to make a difference. She said they lead the students and refer them to the ARTS program. She said they're the ones who banged the quarter on the table.
"Always surround yourself with positive people and believe in your dreams, because if you can dream it, you can do it," Olson said.
Also speaking was Catherine Cote, a 2013 graduate, and two other students who came through the program.
Cote said she failed her freshman year and had other personal problems. With the ARTS program, she said, she could study at her own pace and receive special attention. She said she ended up with straight A's and now attends Gateway Community College.
"One thing I loved at the ARTS was the relationship I had with my teachers," she said, adding that she still goes back to visit them.
At the end of the ceremony, graduate Terrance Summons said he attended the program for two years and took a regular high school curriculum.
"It's a lot smaller environment," he said. "You just focus the whole time. You really learn the habit of studying."