The cars arrive by the hundreds, long lines of headlights snaking away into the warm spring night. The cavalcade makes its way toward a long, metal frame building — a barn, essentially — and the line breaks up as the cars are guided by volunteers with glowing batons into neat, parked rows. Doors fly open, and each arrival bears with it the promise of a good time and the joy of freedom.
It’s 10 o’clock. It’s graduation night and it’s time to party. It’s time for Project Graduation.
The first time Deana McGonagill volunteered at Project Graduation, she just wanted to see what all the fuss was about. The year was 2006, and she was president of the Evans Middle School PTO. Her son had graduated high school the year before, her daughter would soon be entering high school, and McGonagill was curious about this new graduation night party that she had been hearing so much about. Project Graduation needed volunteers. So she signed up.
Games of physical prowess abound at Project Graduation. The event is held at Myers Park & Event Center in McKinney.
The night of the event, McGonagill was thrilled to see how many graduates chose to come to the party, but her enthusiasm quickly deflated when she found herself assigned to a table calling out bingo numbers.
“I thought, ‘No high school kid is going to play bingo,’” said McGonagill. But, she had miscalculated the teenage capacity for fun and their eagerness to win prizes.
“It was one of the most popular things out there! Those bingo tables stayed full. The kids had so much fun, and when I left, they gave me a standing ovation!”
McGonagill was hooked. Her initial skepticism about the relationship between young adults and bingo has since transformed into a full-blown passion for Project Graduation, a combined annual graduation party for McKinney Boyd High School, McKinney High School and McKinney North High School that starts at 10 p.m. on the night of graduation and doesn’t let up until 6 the next morning.
Over the past 10 years, more than 7,000 McKinney ISD students have attended Project Graduation, and McGonagill has been in charge of organizing it for the last five. Every year, she has seen the turnout grow. Last year 1,100 kids showed up. With about 1,400 seniors expected to graduate in 2014, McGonagill hopes that the number will increase once again.
Held at Myers Park & Event Center in McKinney, Project Graduation offers as much fun as McGonagill and her team of volunteers can possibly cram into a single location: music, food, casino games, inflatable sumo wrestling, climbing walls, obstacle courses, cash prizes and – at the end of the night – a drawing to win a car, generously donated by Nissan of McKinney.
Prizes and cash are all donated by local businesses for Project Graduation.
Thanks to the scores of local businesses, volunteers and organizations who contribute, Project Graduation doesn’t cost the participants anything more than the gas it takes to drive there, and the money they use throughout the night is just stand-in fakery provided by the volunteers. The prizes that they can win, however, are very real.
“Last year, I think we gave away $30,000 in cash prizes,” said McGonagill. In addition to all that cash, guests can also walk away with other coveted prizes such as televisions, computers, bicycles and electronic devices – all donated by local businesses who believe in the project.
“It’s just an unfortunate thing, but a lot of kids, when they’re celebrating, especially on graduation night, a huge part of that involves drinking and drugs,” said McGonagill. “Last year in this country, there were over 4,000 kids who died from alcohol-related injuries. For Project Graduation, the bottom line is to keep these kids and the community safe. In order to do that we throw this all-night party, and encourage the seniors to come – every MISD graduating senior, and they are allowed to bring one guest.”
The Bottom Line
But fun and prizes aside, Project Graduation is perhaps most importantly a night free from the temptations and dangers present at far too many graduation festivities.
That bottom line has the support of the McKinney Police Department and the Collin County Sheriff’s Office. Sergeant Sherwood Holmes is a veteran McKinney police officer who has served five years as a school resource officer with McKinney ISD.
“An event like Project Graduation to law enforcement is basically priceless. It gives the kids an opportunity to be somewhere safe,” said Sgt. Holmes. “Parents know they’re safe, and they’re having good, clean, honest, wholesome fun. There’s just no other way to put it. They’re in an environment where they can just have fun and not worry about anything. Not worry about getting into accidents. Not worry about doing something crazy. Not having to really worry about the peer pressure of drugs and alcohol and things they could get involved in that often go along with the celebration of graduating.”
The goal is to get graduates there and encourage them to stay. To that end, prizes are not distributed until 5:30 a.m. If students do choose to leave, they are not allowed to return, and they forfeit any of their prizes.
Kimberly Blaquiere, now a student at UNT, graduated from McKinney High School last year and attended Project Graduation. Once there, she had no intention of leaving. “When you get there, you think, ‘Oh, I’ll just stay for an hour or two,’ and then it’s really fun, and time passes by. So, you just stay for the whole time,” she said.
“And then, afterwards, everyone tells the junior class, ‘You should go. It’s so much fun! I never thought it would be fun, but it is.’ And, it’s important because it’s just one last memory. I think high school is an important thing and something to remember, so that’s just the final icing on the cake of your high school career. It’s just a good memory for everyone.”
Fun Doesn’t Just Happen
But events like Project Graduation run on volunteer power and donations, all of which go directly into the event. McGonagill said that she and her team of eight board members need about 200 volunteers to pull it off, and she encourages parents of underclassmen to get involved.
“Even though you may not have a kid who’s a senior this year, we need the parents of underclassmen to do this because the parents want this in place, let me tell you, when their kid gets there,” she said. “But, it doesn’t have to be just high school parents. Anybody can volunteer. One of the big things we need is people who can deal blackjack and poker. Those tables are packed all night long. We need people to help with that, and we need people to help with food.”
To any parents on the fence about Project Graduation, McGonagill poses this question, “Kids are going to celebrate graduation. Kids are always going to celebrate graduation. So, is it better to have them at Project Graduation where they’re having fun, they’re with their friends, they’re in a safe environment, or do you want them out celebrating on their own?”
As the sun breaks over the horizon, they begin to disperse, heading slowly back to their vehicles, laden with prizes and the need for sleep. There are hugs and farewells, and some wonder when they might see each other again – these friends and classmates they’ve seen every day for years. They climb into cars and trucks and SUV’s and head for home, and soon – to college and work. And looking back, it was a very good night.
But, the time for looking back is past. It is time to look ahead.
To find out more or to learn how you can get involved, contact Deana McGonagill at email@example.com or at P.O. Box 1235, McKinney, TX 75070.
About the author: Shane Mauldin is the Communications Coordinator for McKinney ISD. You can contact him at 469-302-4007 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.