LHS Project Graduation
Updated: Aug 18, 2022
Milan Naropanth ('23) & Aleksandra Mondrzik ('23)
High school is a time of growth and development and by the time senior year comes around, most people would describe themselves as unrecognizable from their freshman year. The last year of high school is an exciting time for events, activities, and most importantly graduation. Although high school graduation is a time for celebration, it can be a cause of stress for guardians and students alike. “Unfortunately, these [big] parties too often include underage alcohol and drug use, with tragic results for the graduates, their families and the whole community,” says Jayshree Kalwachwala, the current Chairperson of Project Graduation.
Most people in the school community have probably heard of Project Graduation, but might not know what Project Graduation actually does until their senior year of high school. So what is Project Graduation? Formed in 1988 by a group of LHS parents, Project Graduation hosted their first event for the class of 1989. For more than 30 years, their events have had zero drug- or alcohol-related incidents, allowing LHS seniors to celebrate their graduation safely. Their largest event of the year is their Final Event. Seniors of Lawrence High School are locked in at school right after the graduation ceremony at CURE Arena (June 21st at 7:30 PM). The entire school is converted into a party zone with games, food, a DJ, karaoke, raffle prizes, senior gifts, and more. This year, their final event will be hosted on June 21st from 11 PM to 5 AM. This event has changed throughout the decades. Milan interviewed the founders of the organization to learn about Project Graduation's origin.
Milan: How did Project Graduation start at Lawrence High School?
Mr. Van Hise: When we started it in 1989, the whole purpose of Project Graduation was to have a party for every graduating senior in Lawrence High after the graduation proceedings that took place. Our concern was that the students had previous activities with their family like graduation ceremonies and dinner, but it worked out. During the first few times we hosted Project Graduation, we had it in the gymnasium at Mercer County Community College and invited all of the seniors to stay all night. With this, our main worry was drunk driving and drug use. At the Mercer County Community College campus, we could use the swimming pool, the gymnasium, and we could give gifts out all night long. Everything from college sized dorm refrigerators, TVs, and radios were of use on campus. We just collected as much money as we could and as many gifts as we could throughout the school year and gave them out to the kids so that they could have the best experience possible.
Milan: Was alcohol or drugs a problem during the first year of Project Graduation? What was security like?
Mr. Van Hise: It was not a problem for us that night because we had a group of parents that got together. Somebody from the county had an idea about this and they spoke to the parents group all at the end of the school year. That was the year our son Kevin graduated, in 1989, he and his girlfriend. We had a group of parents to help us. We worked right from the beginning of the school year right on up to the time of the graduation proceedings to coordinate this whole thing. We had parents who checked in the kids, they had to be a student of Lawrence. We registered them, if they showed up and smelled like alcohol they didn’t get in. But I don’t think we ever did, we did not have to turn anyone away at the time because we did not detect any drugs or alcohol. We had some kids who showed up from other schools who tried to get in. There was a student in Kevin’s class, his name was Howard Johnson, and that night I think we got six Howard Johnsons showed up because he must of told his friends that he was going to this party after graduation and we had to turn a bunch of Howard Johnsons away because we only had one in Lawrence High School’s graduating class and he was already there. We turned the rest of them away at the door.
Mrs. Van Hise: The students could leave anytime they wanted, but they had to be present every hour when we called prizes because they had to be there to pick them up.
Mr. Van Hise: So if at twelve o’clock we call somebody’s name and they are entitled to a prize and they did not pick it up right away, then they did not get it. They had to stay when we were drawing the prizes.
Milan: Did local businesses support Project Graduation at first?
Mr. Van Hise: We got gifts from many businesses around Lawrence, Halo Farms gave us drinks. We had drinks and food and hoagies and pizza. We had a lot of donations from a lot of businesses around the community. All night long we gave them food and for breakfast we had bagels and coffee. The Prints Tennis Corporation gave us t-shirts that had “Project Graduation Class of ‘89” imprinted on them. We worked on this for several years. We reached out to the student body and a lot of parents worked for companies. We have some really big companies around here. Parents would ask their company for some donations, and that worked well since they already worked there. That brought in a lot of the supplies as well.
Milan: What kinds of activities were offered for the students at Project Graduation in 1989?
Mr. Van Hise: We had a photo booth.
Mrs. Van Hise: We had volleyball for the kids. They had a movie, we had a VCR set up for them to watch a movie. The swimming pool was available to us.
Milan: Describe the first year challenges of Project Graduation in 1989.
Mrs. Van Hise: The first year was tough because there were only a few sets of parents helping out, about four or five sets of parents worked with us. We did a lot of planning, it was not easy the first year, but we did it and it was very successful.
Mr. Van Hise: It was a lot of work because we started out with nothing, no money, just the idea. There was no state or school grant money, we raised the money ourselves. We went to businesses all throughout Lawrence Township and asked them for donations, gift certificates. We gave mini refrigerators and TV’s, all types of things to the kids. There was a real incentive for the kids to be there all night. The three years we were active there was a lot of participation.
Mrs. Van Hise: Well the first year, of course then it was a brand new program, and I am pretty sure Lawrence High School was the first in the county to do a Project Graduation. Almost every week we had a meeting at our house and we sat down and talked, try to figure out things. After that, the second and third year got easier.
Milan: Was Lawrence High School involved in the planning of Project Graduation?
Mrs. Van Hise: The school was never really involved. In the spring, we would serve breakfast only for the seniors. A couple years later, the Student Council started getting involved and helped us plan activities. We had a car wash to raise money and we sold money for Mother’s Day. We also had a lot of parent donations. Parents sort of organized this. They would sign up to meet: we always had parents willing to help. On graduation night, a lot of younger students’ parents came to help out so when it was the other child’s turn to graduate, they already knew what was going on. Some parents stayed all night long for the event.
Mr. Van Hise: The students did not seem to mind that their parents were there. Parents had to set everything up, we had to monitor, we had to clean up. Parents did all of the work and did not expect anything from the students at the night of the party.
Milan: What were some highlights of the night in the 1989 Project Graduation event?
Mrs. Van Hise: Back in the 80’s we made cups printed with Lawrence High School, the year on it. Every student that came in that night got a care package with a t-shirt and cups and other little things so that they can have something to remember their senior year.
Mrs. Van Hise: There were never any problems. Everyone had a great time. It was nice to see that everyone was so together, there was no fight there was no argument.
Mr. Van Hise: We had someone who was drawing their caricatures, we had a DJ, we had a fortune teller, there were a lot of activities. The way we saw it, it may be the last time a lot of the kids may see the kids in their class. If you do not hang out with other groups, you may not see them again. People mixed all night long. It was not the kind of thing where you only got a couple of couples. We figured, if you wanted to go out with someone, you would take them to the prom. So if you spend half the night with your family, and then you come over and spend the rest of your night with your friends from class, and maybe you take some quality time with people that you haven’t really hung out with. The best part of it for us was, the three years we were really in charge, we never had an incident (except for the Howard Johnson’s showing up), we never had to call the police, we never had any confrontations. The parents were good, the students were good, it was very gratifying to us to know that not a single kid from that class got into a traffic accident. We get an invitation as guests to prom. It was the class of 1990 that invited us to the prom. That was their recognition of the work that we put in, it was very nice.
Lawrence High School’s Project Graduation also hosts events leading up to prom. The Senior Breakfast held on prom morning (this year June 2nd) is sponsored by LHS Project Graduation. The breakfast is followed by a DUI presentation by the Lawrence Township Police department. Ms. Kalwachwala emphasizes that, “the goal of this presentation is to educate our seniors about the tragedy of traffic crashes — and to reinforce the importance of using seat belts, and to show the consequences of driving after consuming alcohol and/or distracted driving.” After the event, the crashed car along with a banner displaying “Stay Safe. Stay sober. Save Lives!” is placed on Princeton Pike by LHS to continue to spread the message to the community.
Starting in 2020, parent volunteers of LHS Project Graduation delivered a specially designed lawn sign free of cost to every LHS senior on College Decision Day (May 1st). This tradition created for the pandemic will be continued.
As a non-profit, all-volunteer-based, 501 (c) (3) charitable organization that does not receive financial support from Lawrence Township Public Schools, Project Graduation is supported by the Lawrence Alcohol and Drugs Alliance (LADA), Ann DeGennaro, and LHS school club Change in Action (CIA). Their annual budget is about $25,000 but they also host fundraising events throughout the year. Their largest fundraiser is Senior Showcase (formerly known as Mr. LHS), a talent show just for seniors. It is held every year on the first Friday in May. “The Lawrence community has generously supported us all these years,” says Jayshree Kalwachwala. “We receive donations from LHS parents, local businesses and churches. We also receive grants for our programs from LADA, Lawrence Township Community Foundation (LTCF) and Walmart Community.” If you would like to donate, visit their website.
If you would like to support Project Graduation without donating, consider volunteering! Volunteers help run Project Graduation tables at school and community events. They also help run concession stands, deliver signs, cardinal care packages, and chaperone at the final event. While they have not worked with LHS volunteers yet, they are looking into offering it starting in the fall of 2022.
The Project Graduation Committee consists of volunteers. They can work on the board as chair, secretary, treasurer and committee chairs for several committees. Volunteers consist of parents of LHS students, parents of former LHS students, LHS Alumni and BOE members! Anyone can join and there are no membership fees.
Chairperson: Jayshree Kalwachwala firstname.lastname@example.org
Treasurer: Kiki Melvin email@example.com