By Christine Galeone, Contributing Writer
Westborough – In 1979 during graduation season, Oxford Hills, Maine, lost seven of its teenagers because of drugs and alcohol. From those tragedies, the first Project Graduation – an all-night substance-free, alcohol-free graduation night event – was born. Since then, Project Graduation has spread across the nation, significantly reducing drug- and alcohol-related deaths.
In Westborough, in 1991, the community launched its Project Graduation Westborough program. It has been keeping Westborough High School graduates safe, while giving them a fun, memorable celebration ever since.
Geoffrey Spofford, a member of the program’s Board of Trustees which oversees the event said he is not aware of any Westborough graduation season fatalities due to drugs or alcohol since the program began. Thankful for its success, he said Westborough’s event, which was held June 6 from 10 p.m. until 5 a.m., was inspired by parental concern.
“Project Graduation in Westborough was started in 1991 by a group of concerned parents looking to provide a safe setting for Westborough’s graduating seniors to celebrate,” Spofford said. “As far back as our records show, the event has been held at Teamworks in Northborough – formerly known as InSports in the 1990s.”
But although the location has remained the same, Project Graduation Westborough has evolved into a major event with a new theme each year – it can cost up to $16,000. Holly Damiano, co-chair of the 2015 event, said that much time and effort goes into the program.
“Planning starts in the fall, and we meet monthly with committee chairs and the five Project Graduation trustees. There are 10 committees involved with planning the event: set-up, chaperoning, decorating, fundraising, entertainment, memory lane, food, post-party clean up, publicity and invitations and gifts,” said Damiano, who is grateful for the work that more than 100 volunteers do to make the event a success. “Project Graduation would not happen without its dedicated volunteers.”
This year, those volunteers were dedicated to bringing the excitement of Las Vegas – including bright lights and murals – to Teamworks. Even though Amanda Priest, the other co-chair, joked that “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” she shared some of the fun things that more than 89 percent of the graduating class experienced.
“A Welcome to Las Vegas sign greeted the graduates as they entered and were checked in for the night,” Priest noted. “Highlights of the night included the all-you-can-eat buffet offering many favorite foods donated from local restaurants, a lounge with music playing consistently, a field of inflatable activities, karaoke, blackjack and poker tables with volunteers dressed as dealers, volleyball and board games and the ever-favorite hypnotist closed out the 3 to 5 a.m. hours.”
Spofford, Damiano and Priest are all thankful for the community support. Priest mentioned that the program relies on financial and in-kind donations.
“Over 75 local businesses donated financially toward the event,” she said. “Over 30 local restaurants donated food to keep the graduates fed throughout the evening.”
She added that anyone “who has financially contributed would tell you they are proud to have offered the entire graduating class a safe and age-appropriate place to celebrate. All who enter leave safely the following morning. All in the community have the peace of mind to know that the majority of graduates are safely tucked away for the evening, enjoying an event that was created just for them.”
One of those graduates, who enjoyed the camaraderie, is Charlie Buress.
“Thanks to the hard work of the parents, we were able to utilize every available space of Teamworks. Whether it was the open soccer fields where pick-up games went on the entire night, the several bouncy houses to flip on, the hypnotist who used our tired minds to put on a great show or the many poker tables to try our luck at, there was never a shortage of things to do,” Buress said. “Even though there were tons of activities to partake in, my favorite part was the sense of community. No matter what we were doing, there was always a friendly character within feet to talk to. Project Graduation was one of the best nights of many of our lives and will be forever remembered.”
Gena Ryder, one of Charlie’s classmates, also appreciated the strong sense of unity.
“I enjoyed the karaoke and the hypnotist,” she said. “But most of all, I enjoyed being with the Class of 2015 for the last time all together.”