It’s been 30 years. The seniors whose time at Ridgefield High School ended with a graduation night tragedy in 1983 are nearing their 50s.
Two deaths resulted from that June night’s misguided celebrations. A young man was struck and killed on the road outside a graduation night keg party in Ridgefield. Before the end of college the classmate who drove the car died, a suicide.
One positive legacy of that awful night lives on — the big splashy alcohol-free “post-grad party.”
It’s Ridgefield’s solution, if only for one night a year, to the problem of kids with cars and cause for celebration.
But the post-grad party is short of cash.
“We’re at 78% of our budget, and the party’s five weeks away,” said Michelle Sullivan, a party volunteer for six years and a co-chairwoman for five. “We haven’t increased our budget in five years, it’s stayed the same.”
She cited its value to the high school community.
“It is a safe place for the kids to go,” she said. “It’s kind of become something to look forward to.”
With a son who’ll be a junior next year and a daughter starting middle school, Steve Scott is an “undergraduate parent” who started volunteering after hearing about it. “Once I went I was just blown away with how well it’s run and what a great idea it is to keep the kids safe and off the roads on graduation night,” he said.
“It’s a great event and I believe in it,” said Mr. Scott, now one of three chairs.
Contributions may be made by via a PayPal account on the party’s website: www.RHSpostgrad.com.
Donations may also be made by check to Ridgefield Post Grad Party, and mailed to Ridgefield Post Grad, P.O. Box 868, Ridgefield CT 06877.
“We even have a Facebook page, which is RHSpostgrad on Facebook, which has pictures of past parties, if people want to see what it’s about,” Ms. Sullivan said.
“We’ve done a million things to try to reduce costs,” she said. “We’ve changed vendors. We’re recycling decorations. We’ve got the Boys & Girls Club helping us with transportation for our volunteers, with the shuttle bus.”
Fund raising began in January. “We sent two separate mailings out,” Ms. Sullivan said, “one specifically to the senior parents, and the other to the underclassmen.
“We usually will get donations from the parents of underclassmen. They’re pretty good about it,” she said. “But let’s face it, the bulk of the fund raising is the senior parents. It’s for their children.”
“We actually had Sam Gravitte, the student body president, send out a telephone message on the Connect-Ed, a plea to the high school asking people to donate,” Ms. Sullivan said.
The committee also sent letters to vendors and local businesses. Many have been loyal to the party for years, often donating gift cards that are raffled off to the kids.
Parents’ donations range from cash to gift cards to things like Yankees tickets.
“I just think it’s a matter of awareness in town,” Mr. Scott said. “Not just getting donations from senior parents, but from merchants and businesses in town. If we could build awareness so they could understand how great an event it is, to keep the seniors safe and sound for that night, I think more businesses would contribute.”
Even with lots of volunteer help, the party has costs.
“We provide food, a DJ. We have to rent the rec center. We pay for police. These things are not donated,” Ms. Sullivan said.
The decorations are elaborate, but the committee holds down costs by not buying much. Themes are recycled, decorations stored and reused. Volunteers make decorations.
“I have a whole team of people who make this stuff. They’re painting in their garages,” Ms. Sullivan said.
Organizers have church-fair type games they’ve made, and reuse, but some popular amusements are rented.
And the kids get prizes.
“We do purchase prizes for the evening,” Ms. Sullivan said. “Some are donated, but we do purchase others.”
In the years since the post-grad party began, it has developed its own momentum — but it’s still a trick to get kids to stay all night.
Organizers use an old parental strategy — bribery. They offer valuable prizes such as computers, TVs, dorm-size refrigerators. “The prizes are what keeps them there for the night,” Ms. Sullivan said.
The very best stuff is raffled off at the end of the party.
Grads can’t leave and come back, and they have to stay all night to get in on the big prize giveaway at the end.
The party has done well at becoming, and remaining, the place for class members to be graduation night.
“The percentage of the class is about 85%,” Ms. Sullivan said. “It had been higher in prior years, but in 2011 and on we began Breathalizing. I don’t know if that has changed our percentage, but normally we were over 90%.
“There’s kids that come to this party that don’t go to the prom,” she said.
And that’s the idea — having the kids all get together and celebrate on graduation night — without any drinking and driving, to lower the risk that the tragedy of 30 years ago could happen again.