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Project Graduation: Keeping graduating teens safe

YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan -- High school graduation: more than just the culmination of four years of studying, sports and socializing, it is considered by some to be the quintessential rite of passage for American teenagers.

Just like the cap, gown and tassel, graduation night celebrations have become a tradition.

Too often, the festivities involve unsupervised - and sometimes illegal - activities that result in trouble and tragedy.

One group of parents and citizens at Yokota Air Base are working hard to make graduation night a safe and sober night to remember.

Although relatively new to Yokota, Project Graduation was created more than 20 years ago in response to the overwhelming number of incidences and accidents that typically occurred on graduation night. Now, the concept has become a custom for high schools across the United States.

Yokota High School's class of 2006 was the first to take part in Project Graduation festivities, and the event was a huge success with almost 100 percent of seniors attending the bash. According to Project Graduation president Rebecca Kendrick, maximum attendance is important, but providing seniors with a fun and safe graduation celebration is what Project Graduation is all about.

"Our goal is 100 percent participation. We want all of our kids to be safe and have a great time on graduation night," said Ms. Kendrick. "Since we're overseas, it's difficult to have the traditional backyard family get together to celebrate graduation. This is an inclusive way for all students to spend one last memorable night together."

Typically, the event begins at 10:30 p.m. the night of graduation and ends at 6 a.m. the next morning. The night includes food, games and a ton of prizes and while seniors are welcome to help with fundraisers and publicity for the event, the actual agenda is kept a closely guarded secret.

"The students aren't involved in the planning of the event since the 'surprise' element is so important," said Ms. Kendrick.

The one thing you won't see at the Project Graduation party is drugs and alcohol. Project Graduation rules state that no drugs, alcohol, or otherwise illegal substances are allowed at the gathering. In an effort to promote camaraderie, only YHS students are allowed to attend.

"We hope they get to know students they didn't know before and find out things about each other like, what their future plans are and where they are going after graduation," said Ms. Kendrick.

Janet Pierpont, whose daughter, Jenna, participated in last year's Project Graduation event, said not only was it a great party, it was a wonderful alternative to smaller, unsanctioned activities.

"It was awesome, Jenna had a great time," said Ms. Pierpont.

"Initially, the idea of a chaperoned party wasn't appealing to her, but once she heard more about all the activities, she really wanted to go. It was an excellent way to celebrate graduation night."

Parents do the planning for the evening, but the bulk of the financial support comes from a combination of fundraising and private donations.

"We have taken advantage of every fundraiser opportunity we've been given," said Ms. Kendrick. "We have two fundraisers per quarter and we participate in off base events when we can. So far, we had a fall and spring bazaar, a car wash, food vending and we are really looking forward to our upcoming Rug Auction."

To date, the Project Graduation committee has raised about two-thirds of the funds necessary to make the event a reality.

For parents like Ms. Pierpont, Project Graduation offers parents just as much as it offers kids.

"It's a win-win situation," she said. "The students get an awesome party and parents get peace of mind, knowing their kids are safe."