GROTON — As it turned out, the real place to be on June 4 for North Middlesex Regional High School students on graduation day was not at Fitchburg State College’s recreation center in Fitchburg, where commencement exercises took place, but at their own high school in Townsend, where Project Graduation held its annual all-night “lockdown” party.
“This year’s Project Grad was a huge success because the kids had a fabulous time and parents didn’t have to worry about them,” said Georgette Rogers, chairman of Project Grad, which seeks to keep students safe at a time when many will use graduation as an excuse for excess.
“Also, there was no added expense to the families and students had one last chance to celebrate with their classmates,” said Rogers.
Of a graduating class of 285, 260 went back to the high school that night to be locked in from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. and avail themselves of food, fun, and entertainment in an “around-the-world” setting that maximized fellowship and good feeling in an alcohol-free atmosphere.
In exchange, students had to be willing to sign in at the door and not leave the party until it ended the next morning (unless their parents came to pick them up). Inside, a small army of 180 chaperones, not necessarily parents, attended at different times throughout the evening to make sure everything ran smoothly and entertainment remained nonstop.
“It is a difficult thing for students who are graduating high school to agree to be locked up all night long and unable to leave without being escorted out by their parents,” admitted Rogers, whose youngest child was among the graduates. “But what we try to do is be very respectful of them. It may seem as though we’re treating them like children but we try to make it feel as though this is the place to be. We present it to them as a way to be with all their classmates one last time. To help that feeling along, we decorate the building as though it’s not their high school but another place.”
The high school inaugurated Project Graduation in 2004. Unlike many other communities, the program hit the ground running and has not stopped.
“We have a good reputation and the kids tell other kids about Project Grad from year to year,” Rogers said. “We’re lucky because over the years, I’ve come to realize how difficult it is to get something like Project Grad off the ground. Once, I was asked to speak at Leominster High School because they were considering doing the same thing there but I was told not to say anything about doing it to keep students safe or that parents would be involved. In Groton, they tried very hard to do an after-dark party but had to cancel it due to lack of involvement. So we must be doing something right because over the years, Project Grad has managed to be the cool place for students to be. They just continue to sign up for it.”
Also signing up have been local businesses such as Bailey’s Bar & Grille, McDonald’s Patriot Pizza & Subs, Dunkin Donuts, all in Townsend, Lawrence Library in Pepperell, and Klever Klippers, Inc., in Townsend. Employees of the hair salon attended the event to offer free hair styling to graduates.
Project Graduation was founded in 1980 after a series of tragedies in Oxford Hills, Maine. During their 1979 commencement season, seven teenagers in the community suffered drug- or alcohol-related deaths. Following the blue print of offering chemical-free entertainment to teenagers and increasing the awareness of dangers of substance abuse, the program grew exponentially, and by 1986 there was a Project Graduation event being held in all 50 states and two Canadian provinces.
“After that, people in the community said they had to do something and they came up with the idea of an all-night lockdown party. It became so popular that since then, it has spread across the country. The only thing is, sometimes people try to avoid using the ‘lockdown’ term because students don’t like that but even so, that’s exactly what it is. The party is held in a controlled setting. Sometimes they might be held after proms and sometimes after graduations, but in any case, it’s usually held on high-risk nights when students are partying and drinking and driving from one place to another. The idea of the lockdown is to keep them off the roads.
“Here at North Middlesex, Project Grad was originated by Elaine Kent who also chaired the first year,” said Rogers. “But as all parent organizations do, it has evolved and changed as new students come into the high school and grad parents come and go.
“That said, the core of it has remained unchanged,” Rogers said. “One thing we’re very proud of here at North Middlesex is that we’ve never had to charge our students to attend. We’ve met with leaders of other groups in the area and they charge a fee to their students. It’s certainly reasonable to do so however. There are a lot of expenses that the family of a graduating senior is hit with including those for the prom, senior week, and cap and gown to name a few. So we at Project Grad have tried very hard to keep costs down.
“But it doesn’t take much imagination to see how expensive it can get to throw an all-night-long party for over 200 guests,” said Rogers. “The challenge is that we don’t want a bunch of 17- and 18-year-olds getting bored. So to keep that from happening, we plan to have multiple events going on continuously all night long.”
According to Rogers, the total cost of Project Graduation, for which fundraising takes place almost all year long, comes to about $10,000. With manpower covered by volunteers and help from local businesses, the money is mostly used to pay for entertainment, security, decorations, and an all-night buffet.
Entertainment at last week’s event included a caricature artist, tarot readers, a hypnotist, a mechanical bull, a DJ and an oversized inflatable Twister game with slide and obstacle course.
“Those are items we do have to pay for so we try to put most of our money into things like that,” said Rogers.
The Project Graduation event Is a year-long effort to raise funds, make plans, and coordinate supplies, equipment, and people to make sure graduating students experience a night they will always remember.
“It’s a huge undertaking,” said Rogers.
For that reason, Project Graduation is constantly seeking new volunteers, especially parents of upcoming high school seniors, to replace those whose children have graduated. Volunteers are needed to help staff the group’s many sub-committees including those for food, entertainment, registration, cleanup, chaperones, decorations, logistics, advertising, fundraising, and prizes.
If you are interested in volunteering or want to find out more about Project Graduation, visit the group’s website at nmiddlesex.mec.edu/ HSProjGrad/index.html or contact chairwoman Lynne LeBlanc at firstname.lastname@example.org.