KAILUA-KONA — A week from Saturday, seniors at Kealakehe High School will celebrate their graduation and the close of their time in high school.
But before they head off into the world, they’ll get one more chance to celebrate with their classmates with a full night of fun put on by Kealakehe Project Grad.
“It was just a lot of good laughs and really good memories with (my friends),” said class of 2016 graduate Noe Balanay as she recalled her own Project Grad celebration, “and I think that everybody should get the chance to have that with their friends.”
Organizers behind this year’s event, meanwhile, are reminding students to register.
Registration for the event is available at the school’s library as well as online at www.khsprojectgrad.com. Project Grad representatives will also be at the upcoming graduation rehearsals.
Registration costs $30, although students in financial need can request to have the fee waived.
For nearly 20 years now, Kealakehe Project Grad has offered graduating seniors from Kealakehe High School and West Hawaii Explorations Academy a safe drug-and-alcohol-free event to celebrate with classmates.
“It’s an alternative to party-hopping on graduation night,” said Pam Wong, fundraising coordinator for the nonprofit Kealakehe Project Grad. “A lot of kids will go out to the beach and then maybe even if they don’t drink, they might stay out all night and be too tired and they drive back, and they’re putting themselves and the community at risk.”
Project Grad events, she said, started nationwide about 25 years ago. In addition to offering a safe night of fun, it’s also an event that’s open to all students.
“Everybody can enjoy a celebration,” said Wong. “Not all families can afford to throw a big party, and some kids could be left out. And this is inclusive of everybody.”
The event begins directly after Kealakehe High School’s graduation ceremony on June 1 and kicks off at Kekuaokalani Gymnasium before moving to KBXtreme at 2 a.m.
The celebration will feature a Polynesian show, DJ, a wide range of activities, and a catered dinner made possible mostly via restaurant donations.
Other supporters, Wong said, include businesses and organizations from throughout the community, all of whom have made it part of their annual routine to support the school’s graduating seniors. Altogether, she said, sponsors make up 80 percent of Project Grad’s budget, helping keep student contribution low.
“I think these are people who are really dedicated to the community,” said Wong. “Children’s events, young people’s events, endear them. They really want to support something that helps a wide array of our demographics.”
Last month, the Hawaii County Council unanimously voted to contribute $2,000 to support Kealakehe Project Grad.
North Kona councilwoman Karen Eoff said the event offers a safe environment for graduates to celebrate their friendships and accomplishments as they start a new chapter in their lives.
Balanay said the event, for some graduates, also represents the last opportunity to have a night out with their classmates.
“Because if you’re going to go off by yourself to go do something else, you might not get to see your friends again,” she said. “And I think that Project Grad is a really good way to bring everyone together.”
This year students had the opportunity to attend the event for free if they volunteered at two fundraisers, such as the Ironman World Championship, the Lavaman Waikoloa Triathlon and the Kona Brewers Festival.
Wong said they’ve had about 50 kids qualify to attend that way, and Project Grad volunteers have logged more than a thousand hours of volunteer time over the course of the year.
“We want to get the information to the kids that, hey, if you volunteer for this, this is part of our community, it’s good to give back,” she said. “And in exchange, you’re getting back.”
Wong said organizers are still accepting donations of food and door prizes. And as this current school year closes, the organization is in need of people, particularly parents of undergraduates, willing to serve as board members to coordinate Kealakehe Project Grad in the future.
Those interested in donating or getting involved can email firstname.lastname@example.org.