Grad Night takes a village
VOLUNTEERS ANNA BIMENYIMANA and Ally Minatta check Sonoma Valley High School senior Sam Keechler in at Grad Night.
Fueled by a spread of Pop-Tarts, peanut butter pretzels, brownies and trail-mix, the parents of Sonoma Valley High School gathered in the gym on Friday, June 1, to ensure the graduating class of 2012 one last – safe – hoorah, before setting these Dragons to flight from their nest.
Grad Night, a tradition begun in 1987, is a fun alternative for students who might otherwise be tempted to celebrate their graduation by engaging in illegal behaviors, such as drinking and driving. The endeavor costs upwards of $20,000 and multiple months of planning, but tickets cost the students only $60, which does not cover even half the expense of the event. Scholarships are given to students who feel their family cannot cover the cost, and most of the funding comes from the donations of Sonoma Valley residents and businesses.
“The idea is to keep kids safe and alive through graduation,” said Amber McCann-Howlett, who was one of many parent volunteers who made Grad Night successful for this year’s graduates. McCann-Howlett graduated from SVHS the year before the event was introduced, but was now able to experience the tradition years later as the parent of a graduating senior – her daughter, Allison.
Allison, who will attend Dominican University in the fall and plans to major in chemistry said, “It really was so much fun. But I haven’t quite caught up on my sleep yet.”
From the hours of 9:30 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. following graduation, the class of 2012 gathered in an unrecognizable gym, decorated with manikins and plastic lobsters, hand-painted murals and elaborate light displays. Seniors were entertained through the night by a casino, a climbing wall, a photo booth, a beauty salon, a tattoo station and more. They were visited by a hypnotist at the crack of dawn and one lucky graduate walked away with a 1999 Toyota Avalon, the grand prize in a long-awaited raffle.
But although Grad Night appears on surface level to be all fun and games, it is an event that is very serious in its mechanics. The number one priority is for students to remain safe, and measures are taken to ensure this is the case.
“The kids need to be there by 11 p.m.,” said McCann-Howlett. “If they’re not there by 11, we call their parents to see where they’re at.”
Similarly, students are expected to stay at Grad Night until 5:30 a.m., when the event ends. Students who would prefer to leave early must be picked up from the school by their parents, they are not allowed to leave on their own.
Yet while the volunteers at Grad Night take their roles as chaperones very seriously as the graduates run around the gym one last time, getting their nails done and playing poker, the volunteers, too, engage in the fun and games behind the scenes.
“Some moms don’t even have kids at the high school anymore and still volunteer,” McCann-Howlett said. “It’s just so much fun. The first time I volunteered, I signed up for a four-hour shift and ended up staying eight hours.”
Maybe it’s the free Pop-Tarts that keep these parents coming back each year, but more likely it’s the opportunity to let these young adults be children for one last night, and the feeling of accomplishment and relief when they wake up safely the next morning.
“It’s a community effort,” said McCann-Howlett. “Family, friends and faculty all come together to throw one last party for the kids.”
And when dawn breaks and the dragons leap out of the nest, the students will hopefully remember the message that Grad Night seeks to engrain: staying alive is fun, so when you make that leap, make sure your wings – and your common sense – are fully engaged.