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Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools celebrating 30th anniversary of Project Graduation

Project Graduation gift bags sit on a table at the Phoenix Academy High School Spring 2021 graduation ceremony. Photo courtesy of Project Graduation.
Buy Photos Project Graduation gift bags sit on a table at the Phoenix Academy High School Spring 2021 graduation ceremony. Photo courtesy of Project Graduation.

Project Graduation will celebrate its 30th anniversary with a graduation party for high school seniors in Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools this summer.

The event will take place on June 11 from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. at the UNC Student Union. 

Project Graduation began in 1992 with the goal of providing seniors with a drug- and alcohol-free environment where they can celebrate safely. 

In the past, the event has garnered over 900 students from CHCCS high schools. 

Dawn Shohfi, a parent chairperson on the project's steering committee, said the event will include inflatables and bungee trampolines. Celebrations in previous years included performances from hypnotists, aerialists and magicians. 

Seniors will also have the opportunity to win scholarships and prizes at the celebration. 

Sondra Komada, a member of the Project Graduation community board and longtime volunteer on the steering committee, said the committee is working with CHCCS to provide buses for transportation so more students can attend this year's event. 

“If they don't have transportation, or their parents don’t want to get up in the middle of the night to pick them up, we still want them to be able to go,” she said.

This year's celebration will be the first in-person Project Graduation event since 2019, as the past two were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There’s a ton of energy, everyone’s super excited to be there,” Raquel Ruiter, a CHCCS graduate who attended the last in-person event, said. “All the volunteers were super hype. Everyone was just hanging out, having a good time.”

For the last two years, Shohfi said, Project Graduation handed out gift bags following the graduation ceremonies due to COVID-19 restrictions. 

Komada said this year, the steering committee is making a big push to get students talking about the event again. 

“We’re two years out,” Komada said. “So the majority of these seniors haven’t even heard of Project Graduation unless they have an older sibling.”

Two of Komada's daughters attended Project Graduation before the pandemic, she said, but her youngest was unable to attend in 2020 after it was canceled. 

Jonah Garson, a 2005 CHCCS graduate, performed at the event for multiple years as part of Chapel Hill High School's improv team. 

After seeing the effects of the pandemic in the area, Garson said he views Project Graduation’s importance with a renewed appreciation. 

“Especially at a time when we’re in year three of a global pandemic, a lot of folks are thinking in new, imaginative ways about creating social spaces," he said. "Project Graduation has existed as this very intentional, very inclusive and very fun social space.” 

Shohfi said Project Graduation fully relies on the donations of community members and local businesses to support the event. This year, the project has set a goal of $70,000 in donations.

“It is such a close-knit community,” she said. “I would say everybody is always very positive about wanting to donate.” 

But Project Graduation has found it difficult to raise necessary funds this year since many local businesses haven't been able to donate as much because of the pandemic. 

“If they’re folks still laid off at their businesses, it’s hard to donate a certain amount of money,” Shohfi said. 

Garson said he appreciates the social space that Project Graduation creates for seniors.

“There really isn’t anything like it,” he said. “You’re seeing people in your direct social network, but you’re coming together with a lot of different social networks. The whole purpose of project graduation is to create that intentional space that is also safe.”

@DTHCityState | 

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