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TOWNSEND — After six years, what began as perhaps something students would instinctively find suspicious (being promoted and run by their parents after all), is on the point of becoming a tradition, and a popular one at that.

With the start of the new school year, organizers of Project Graduation are once more mobilizing to make sure that the 2011 edition will be even more successful than last year’s when an astounding 260 out of 285 graduating seniors returned to the high school for a “lock down” party thrown by their parents and other adults in the community.

“All the feedback we got last year was very positive,” reported Rick Gray, this year’s president of the Project Graduation effort. “The kids love everything about it, especially the food and surprisingly, they love the mechanical bull! When we didn’t have it one year, we heard about it! They like the whole experience because they know it’s the last night that the senior class will be together as a group. All the kids last year had a very positive experience. It’s definitely not seen as something geeky. My son and his friends are already talking about going to this year’s event.”

Inaugurated at the North Middlesex Regional School District in 2004, Project Grad immediately beat the odds and, unlike many other communities, hit the ground running and became a success.

Unlike other graduation parties, the unique feature of Project Grad is that attending seniors who come to the party following that day’s graduation ceremony are locked into the high-school building from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. the next morning. While inside, they are treated to a continuous round of entertainment, music, and all the food they can eat.

Word is that last year’s theme of “around the world” was so popular that it will be featured again for 2011 with the excitement level for students maximized with fellowship and good feeling in an alcohol-free environment.

“I think that as word gets out about how much fun it is, we’ll have less trouble getting people to come,” said Gray. “The hardest part in the early years, was just letting kids know about it. Now, they look forward to it.”

To participate, all students need to do is be willing to sign in at the door and not leave the party until it ends the next day (unless their parents come to pick them up). Inside, a small army of chaperones (not necessarily parents) who could number in the hundreds, attend at different times throughout the evening to make sure everything runs smoothly and entertainment remains non-stop.

“The whole reason we’re doing this is to keep kids safe on graduation night,” said Gray, the father of a graduating senior this year. “It’s fun and you get to meet a lot of other parents. It’s a nice way to volunteer for the school. To me, a lot of the satisfaction of being involved came from knowing that when my older son was going to graduate, he was going to be safe that night and not having to worry where he was or what he was doing.”

The class of 2011 is expected to number about 290 and hopes are high among organizers that last year’s attendance figure will be beaten.

“We’re shooting for 100 percent,” declared an optimistic Gray. “We want attendance to be as high as we can possibly make it.”

But to do that, Gray and the rest of the Project Grad team will need help, and plenty of it. For that reason, the call is out for volunteers especially from parents of graduating seniors.

“It takes a huge number of people to work the fundraisers, plan for the big night, set up the decorations, and chaperone,” said Gray. “I recently picked up 22 new volunteers for this year’s event but I can use as many people as I can get. I can find work for everyone. It doesn’t matter if volunteers have kids in school or not; they just have to be CORI’d by the school.”

But there are any number of reasons for volunteering, he said.

“My wife volunteered me,” joked Gray. “I began by helping to run logistics for three years and this year they needed somebody to step up as chairman so I did.

“But from my experience, if someone shows up on Friday afternoon to help set up the decorations for grad night, they’ll be hooked for as long as they have children in the school system,” said Gray.

The lockdown this year is scheduled for June 3 with the same hours, rules, and location at the high school as in 2010.

Volunteers are needed to help staff the group’s many subcommittees including those for food, entertainment, registration, clean-up, chaperones, decorations, logistics, advertising, fundraising, and prizes.

Throwing a party for nearly 300 guests does not come cheap with last year’s event clocking in around $10,000. Thus, fundraising begins almost as soon as the doors of the high school open for the latest academic year.

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 year’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.

Fundraisers scheduled so far this year include a hypnotist night on March 26, and dining at local eateries including McDonald’s on Dec. 8, Bailey’s on Feb. 1, and Patriot Pizza on Nov 2, with a portion of the proceeds from meals sold on those evenings earmarked for Project Grad.

For those interested in volunteering, or to learn more about Project Grad, visit the school’s website at http://nmiddlesex.mec.edu/HSProjGrad/index.htmlor email Gray at rlmkgray@charter.net

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