'Don't give up': High school senior offers advice after tragically breaking both her legs at commencement ceremony

Bertha-Hewitt senior Julie Ellis said she felt "very honored" to have a surprise graduation ceremony for her on June 1.

Bertha-Hewitt seniors Julie Ellis and Kaylee Baker enter a special graduation ceremony on June 1, 2021. The surprise ceremony was planned for Ellis after her legs broke during the ceremony on May 28. Julie has osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bone disease, which creates fragile bones. Rebecca Mitchell/Pioneer Journal
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BERTHA, Minn. — Determination. Resilience. Perseverance. While these words describe the experience of senior Julie Ellis’ past several days they also represent her life.

After breaking both of her legs during the Bertha-Hewitt commencement ceremony on May 28, the school hosted a surprise graduation ceremony to honor Julie’s dream on June 1. Though she had to be in a wheelchair, Julie was able to take part in the ceremony with family and friends cheering her on. Her legs broke due to osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bone disease, which creates fragile bones.

“It was very exciting and confusing at the same time,” Julie told reporters about the special ceremony. “I was like, ‘Am I reliving this or am I still sleeping?’”

Julie (far right) joins the class of 2021 for the second ceremony on June 1, 2021. The class included 39 students. Rebecca Mitchell/Pioneer Journal


Julie has a list of things she’s been told she can’t do, like drive or walk after her hip surgery. But none of the can’ts have stopped her, especially from her dream of being able to walk across the stage for her graduation. After a hip surgery in January, Julie walked again — including in graduation practice — after training with a physical therapist, as Bertha-Hewitt Superintendent Eric Koep described.

“At first I fell and I knew I broke it in three different spots,” Julie said. “I looked up and I seen everybody and then I got embarrassed, so then I was like just get me out of this place.”

Bertha-Hewitt Superintendent Eric Koep kneels next to Ellis while watching the tribute videos on June 1, 2021. Rebecca Mitchell/Pioneer Journal

She also realized the hospital staff would have to cut her Rock Revival jeans and boots off to complete the surgery on her legs. Koep immediately promised her jeans would be replaced — an aspect that made her day, Julie said. She was taken to the Gillette's Children Hospital in the Twin Cities where surgery commenced, and within the next 10 days will have additional surgery for her legs to not give out again, as Julie and her mom Mindy said.

Julie’s grandma, Judy, said she’s had several milestones of coming back from injuries, including previously breaking both of her arms, and she knows she’ll get back up again. Along with the emotional experiences, one of the hardest parts about the special ceremony was keeping it a secret, as the family hardly ever keeps secrets, as Julie and Judy said.

“I won’t give up. I refuse to,” as the words read on the back of Julie’s graduation announcement.


Following the ceremony, family members embrace Julie. Rebecca Mitchell/Pioneer Journal

The second chance ceremony also included many in the class of 2021 who came to support Julie as well as community members, including Bertha-Hewitt alumnus Ben Rudrud and video tributes from noteworthy guests.

“It made me very happy to know that they had my back and that they were there for me and I know that if I ever need something I can rely on them,” Julie said of her classmates. She originally thought Koep wanted to take pictures or record her and her friend Kaylee Baker’s graduation speech.

Seniors Kaylee Baker and Julie Ellis deliver their speech on June 1, 2021. They thanked their family members, friends and teachers for their support. Rebecca Mitchell/Pioneer Journal

In their speech, Julie and Baker thanked their family members, friends and teachers for their support. Baker also said their school experiences have meant friends that will last a lifetime along with memories like playing tug of war at volleyball games.

“Whatever path you choose I’m sure you all will be successful in it,” Julie said. “Over the past years we have gained so many memories and looking back we all have changed so much.”

While sharing with the graduates, Rudrud said Julie is the “toughest graduate” and inspires him and the community. He also encouraged the seniors and community members to continue supporting one another and showing up and rooting for each other.


Founder and owner of RIPL Ben Rudrud shared about the importance of supporting one another at the Bertha-Hewitt surprise graduation ceremony on June 1, 2021. Rudrud is also a 1999 Bertha-Hewitt alumnus. Rebecca Mitchell/Pioneer Journal

Julie will also be honored on Veterans Day by one of the video speakers who promised to dedicate a song to her while at Soldier Field in Chicago.

Julie thanked the people who have supported her over the years for getting her to where she is. She plans to be a receptionist and will soon begin job shadowing.

“Keep your head up. Keep pushing forward. It’ll get better and things will work out,” Julie told reporters. “Keep trying, don’t give up.”

Related Topics: PEOPLE
Rebecca Mitchell started as a Digital Content Producer for the Post Bulletin in August 2022. She specializes in enhancing online articles as well as education, feature and health reporting.
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