Family photo frames fabulous four-year feat

Jesse Dalla Riva (center) was cheered on at commencement by (from left) his father, Frank; his wife, Blake; his son, Jaxon; and his mother, Meryl Gatton.

By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau

As he thought back to what he was feeling five years ago, Frank Dalla Riva realized that he never could have imagined the scene that unfolded Thursday afternoon inside Grand Canyon University Arena.

His wildest dreams never could have led him to envisioning his son Jesse, so distraught and drug-ridden back then, getting his Bachelor of Science degree in Counseling so triumphantly – and summa cum laude at that.

“It’s complete redemption,” Frank said. “Five years ago, I used to go to bed every night crying that it’s going to be the last night of his life, and now here we are and he’s graduating college. A true miracle.”

But before the miracle could be confirmed with the conferring of the degree, the family was posing for a photo above the big crowd of graduates and families. There were father and son with Jesse’s mother, Meryl Gatton, and his wife, Blake … and their adorable little son, Jaxon.

Satiated by popcorn just a few minutes before, now Jaxon was fascinated by all the people and lights and signs below. As the family looked one way, Jaxon kept looking the other until, at just the right moment, he looked back toward the camera and flashed the same smile that one day will bless his father when he tells Jaxon about what he has accomplished.

Cheeeeeeese! Perfection. Just like the story of Jesse Dalla Riva.

It’s a story made possible by a GCU scholarship offered through the Phoenix Rescue Mission. When Jesse had weaned his way off drugs and was awarded that grant, Frank was thrilled but also thought about how challenging those four long years would be.

And then …

“It just flew by,” Frank said. “As the weeks went by we said it’s all coming together, and here I am.”

Jesse’s mom was equally astonished … and grateful.

“It’s a complete miracle from God come true,” Gatton said. “It’s a miraculous gift, a blessing from God – that’s all it can be – via GCU and the Phoenix Rescue Mission making it happen and then my son doing the work needed to make this miracle a reality. It’s so beautiful.

“It’s bigger than what I could have dreamed of, and that’s how God works. I’ve learned to trust that God can do more than I could ever imagine or even think of. I just feel blessed and I know my son is so blessed, and I’m so grateful.”

She also talked about how, despite the rigors of his studies and his full-time job at the Rescue Mission, Jesse actually has enjoyed the last four years of the journey:

“He’s loved every minute of it, going from a kid going down the wrong path to getting a second chance in life and just relishing every opportunity.”

And now that he has made so much of that opportunity, his wife said, “I just feel really proud of him, just really excited that he gets to continue his journey in life and make a lot of progress with his job and make progress for our family.”

For his part, Jesse seemed to be just taking it all in Thursday despite two more television interviews before he could take his seat with the other graduates. He’s thinking about signing up for the master’s program next, but first things first.

“I’m excited,” he said. “I knew this was coming, but I’m really looking forward to getting a diploma, being an example for my son and the next steps of life.

“I’m not that nervous about it. I’m more excited that it’s happening. I don’t think I’m going to have to give a speech in front of the crowd or anything like that.”

No, his name was announced and he received his diploma just like everyone else. But none of them had a story quite like this.

“It’s like if you work hard, that pot o’ gold at the rainbow …  Jesse’s found it,” Frank said. “I’m so proud of him. It’s a big day. All the stuff we’ve been through, this is like redemption right now.”

So much hard work toward that degree.

“And a father and a husband and a devoted one at that,” his mom said proudly.

Dreams do come true, prayers are answered. A father’s nightmares are no more.

Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].


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