Meriden's Project Graduation: Food, Friends, Fun and No Alcohol

Project Graduation gives Meriden high school grads a safe place to celebrate.

This is the season for high school seniors to celebrate their accomplishments and look toward the future. But sadly, it’s also a time when young dreams can be cut short by drinking and driving. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the number of car accidents involving alcohol increases sharply during graduation season.

Meriden Project Graduation gives graduates from the city’s three high schools—, and —a way to celebrate safely. Since 1998, the organization has organized an alcohol- and drug-free graduation party.

“Overall, it gets a great turnout,” says Krystle Blake, who works for the underage drinking prevention program at the Rushford Center and helps organize the event. “More than half of all graduates come,” she says.

Karen Sambor, president of Meriden Project Graduation, confirms that last year 453 of about 700 city graduates attended the party.

Organized by parent and community volunteers with input from students, the party is free and provides refreshments and lots of fun entertainment. This year’s party takes place at Wilcox Tech on June 20, the night of Maloney and Platt graduation. Wilcox graduation is the day before.

Festivities include a DJ, an outdoor movie theater (weather permitting), an inflatable obstacle course, a gaming room, a casino room, and hypnotist Dan LaRosa--a perennial favorite. Keleigh LeBlanc, 2010 Maloney graduate and Project Graduation volunteer, remembers the hypnotist from her own party.

“He’s really funny, the things he makes kids do,” she shares.

According to Sambor, the party starts at 10:30 p.m. No one is allowed in after 11:30. The party used to begin earlier, she reveals, but the starting time was pushed back in recent years so families can take their graduates out to dinner after the graduation ceremony.

The party continues through the night until 5:30 a.m. Students may leave if they wish, but a required permission slip allows parents to indicate whether they want to be notified if their child leaves before the party ends.

Students have a strong incentive to stay until the end. They can win raffle prizes throughout the evening. The later it gets, the better the prizes. Last year’s prizes included laptops, cameras, TVs and gift cards, says Alyssa Laurenza, Maloney class of 2011.

“A lot of people stayed until the end, so it definitely served its purpose,” she says of last year’s party.

“We encourage kids to be dropped off so they don’t get on the road when they’re tired,” adds Sambor.

Putting together the event is a year-long effort and takes a lot of community support, Sambor acknowledges. She has been involved in Project Graduations since 2006 when her son graduated from Maloney. About 80 volunteers help organize and run the party, she says.

The party costs anywhere from $18,000 to $30,000, Sambor reports, but students attend completely free.

“Without donations from the community, this wouldn’t be possible,” she insists.

Local businesses donate money and prizes to the cause, she says, and the party is funded with grants from the CUNO Foundation and the Meriden-Wallingford Substance Abuse Council. In addition, volunteers hold fundraisers during the year, including a bottle and can drive and a Chili’s Give Back Night in which a portion of patrons’ meals are donated to Meriden Project Graduation.

One of the nice aspects of the party is the way it brings together students from all three high schools, Sambor says. The cross-town rivalry disappears, and students come together to celebrate their accomplishments, she says.

Laurenza also enjoys the city-wide aspect of the party. “It gives you a chance to reconnect with people you went to school with when you were younger,” she says.

Sambor doesn’t have a child graduating this year, but she is committed to Project Graduation 2012 anyway.

“I believe in it 110 percent,” she says. “Kids need a safe place to celebrate their accomplishments together.”

She also stays involved for another reason.

“Every year, I get a few kids who come up to me and are so grateful because without this, they wouldn’t have had any other kind of party or celebration,” she says.

For more information about Meriden Project Graduation, contact Karen Sambor at (203) 631-8380.


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