Ayanna Tatum celebrated her son Derrick Williams' graduation on May 23 by setting up a stage in her backyard with a Baylor University banner and podium with a microphone

By Joelle Goldstein
June 01, 2020 06:07 PM
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Ayanna Tatum and her son Derrick Williams
Ayanna Tatum/Facebook

A single mother whose son's college graduation was canceled by the coronavirus pandemic went the extra mile to ensure his day would still be one to remember by setting up a surprise ceremony in her backyard.

Ayanna Tatum had been looking forward to her son Derrick Williams' graduation from Baylor University for years, especially after all that they had been through in the past, including a move from New Orleans to Houston in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

But when Williams' graduation was canceled, the mother of two got creative and set up a stage in her backyard — complete with a Baylor University banner and podium with a microphone — and invited a small group of family and friends to celebrate his big day.

"He's a really sweet kid and he works really, really hard so whatever I could do — whatever was in my power, whatever was in my budget — I was gonna do it," Tatum, 41, tells PEOPLE. "He deserved that, and so much more."

"I felt so blessed to have had this happen," adds Williams, 22. "For me, graduation was always supposed to be about friends and family celebrating, and with the backyard ceremony, I got exactly that. It was more than enough as a substitute for the original graduation ceremony."

Ayanna Tatum's backyard graduation set up
Ayanna Tatum/Facebook

Prioritizing her children is nothing new for Tatum, who says she moved to Houston following the 2005 hurricane to give her son and daughter a better life and education, while she continued to finish her own college degree virtually.

Through the years, Tatum says Williams "overcame a lot" of challenges. The family, who struggled financially, also endured a recent hardship in 2019 when Tatum's mother, who lived with them and was a "major influence" in her children's lives, died.

This May, the family expected to leave those tough times behind and celebrate Williams earning his psychology degree from Baylor. Tatum even rented an Airbnb in Waco, Texas, for their family and friends who live out-of-state to stay at and planned a dinner celebration.

But then the coronavirus pandemic swept through the U.S. and changed everything.

"I was relatively upset because this moment that I was supposed to share with my family and friends was taken away," Williams shares. "I understood that this was not the worst that the virus could do, but I was hoping to have this moment for my family, especially my late grandmother."

"This was supposed to be the highlight of 2020," Tatum adds. "You're upset, you're mad, but you don't get to take that out on anybody. We're not suffering from COVID, so you have to figure out what to do with those emotions."

Tatum ultimately figured out what to do thanks to her 19-year-old daughter, who sent her a Facebook post of someone else who had set up an impromptu graduation ceremony in their backyard.

"At first, I didn't think it was possible for me to do it. I thought, 'That looks elaborate,'" Tatum recalls. "The more I thought about it, the more I thought, 'You know what? Try it. Call. See what you can find. See if you can afford it.' "

When she realized it was a possibility, Tatum jumped into action. With the help of their friends and family, the proud mom made the backyard Baylor graduation a reality for an unsuspecting Williams on May 23.

"It all happened so fast. For a minute, I was actually pretty confused," recalls Williams, who thought he was going to his mom's house for lunch. "I knew she was up to something when I saw people I didn't know unloading a stage."

During the ceremony, family friends Anita Harris and Frank Fraley, who also happens to be Williams' former middle school administrator, served as commencement speakers in their caps and gowns. Tatum, meanwhile, sat in the crowd cheering.

The proud mom also made sure to keep the ceremony realistic, arranging for the trio to walk into the backyard to the "Pomp and Circumstance March" and later joking to her son, "It's gonna be a while before you come up because your last name begins with a W."

Following the ceremony, Tatum prepared a gourmet dinner for the group, which she says was made possible by everyone there having "all hands on deck."

RELATED VIDEO: Dad Throws Home Graduation Ceremony For Daughter

Reflecting on the surprise, Tatum says the day turned out perfectly, despite reports of potential rainstorms earlier in the week.

"The fact that it all came together seamlessly, wow. I can't give you the words," she says, noting that the most memorable part of the day was seeing her son's reaction when he first learned of the backyard ceremony.

Tatum says it was also important for her to do something special because her "hardworking" son, who is attending McGovern Medical School at UTHealth in the fall to become an orthopedic surgeon, said he may not be able to attend the rescheduled Baylor graduation due to his studies.

"He is so focused and determined not to let anything get in his way," she says. "I see the resilience, strength, determination. He is so goal-orientated. ... I'm just smiling ear-to-ear, I'm so proud."

That adoration is also mutual for Williams, who says he wants to "contribute to the push toward change for the healthcare inequalities experienced by African Americans and other people of color" once he completes medical school.

"My mom has always put my sister and me ahead of her own needs. I'd consider myself a mama's boy," he says. "At times, it has felt like it was just me and her against the world. She is my biggest cheerleader and has been my rock. She has molded me into the person I am today, and I am so thankful for her."

As of Monday, there have been more than 1.8 million cases and at least 104,703 deaths attributed to coronavirus in the United States, according to the New York Times. In Texas, at least 65,072 cases and 1,685 deaths have been reported, according to the Times.

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