Just before midnight Friday night, did you know where your Hamblen County high school senior was?
Thanks to forward planning, this year marked the 30th for Hamblen County Project Graduation at College Square Mall.
The sprawling shopping center was transformed into a paradise complete with games, sumo wrestling, slides and dunking floats, plus much more.
All kinds of food was donated by Lakeway Area businesses, including 150 pizzas. A smorgasbord of food was available from pizza, to Krystals, KFC, Subway and more. By the time the event ended Saturday morning, there were breakfast items available as well.
The project raised between $35,000 to $40,000 for area seniors.
Amy Waites, a veteran photographer, was tending the photo booth near the toddler play area. This was her third year volunteering at Project Graduation.
“They started doing this right after I left high school,” she said. “I think it was 1991 when they started doing this. I graduated in 1987. The last two years, I helped in security, but this year I said we wanted to do something fun.
Waites had props nearby for those who wanted to take advantage of the booth.
“It’s a lot of fun,” she said. “We can’t do this without the parents’ support. Some don’t want to volunteer saying ‘I don’t want to infringe on my kids.’ You’re not. You’re stuck in one place and they’re running around everywhere.”
Door prizes were split equally between students from East and West high schools.
Tom Tabor was one of the project organizers 30 years ago. He helped to start Project Graduation because two of his friends were killed by a drunk driver on their graduation night.
“We started in May 1989 at the old Morristown Plaza parking lot where Home Depot is now,” Tabor said. “It was in front of the old Rose’s department store. I came to Morristown West as a counselor in 1984 until 2007. I’ve been at Carson-Newman University ever since.
“It’s quite a big tackle, for sure,” he said. “In 1989, we started with a small budget for a three-hour episode. The reason I was interested in starting it was I went to Oak Ridge High School and on my graduation night, two of my best friends were killed by a drunk driver. I wanted to do something in their honor. “
Ann Huckaby, a retired psychology teacher at East, and Tabor were sponsors of the STARS club. STARS was an acronym for “Students Taking a Right Stand” on decisions.
“We decided we would do something to keep our high school seniors safe on graduation night,” he said. “Since we started this in 1989, we haven’t had any fatalities on graduation night in Hamblen County.”
The first Project Graduation started many years ago in Maine, Tabor said. “They had one year where there were an incredible amount of seniors to die in one night. They said, ‘We’ve got to do something about that.’ We got the idea from them.
“It involves the whole community because we depend on businesses to donate money and prizes, restaurants to donate food and so forth. Since we’ve been doing this for 30 years, we have a pretty good base of supporters. Each year, we have new businesses in town we want to bring into the fold.”
Project Graduation is a nonprofit organization.
“This is a tax incentive for businesses to give something, just like a donation to the church,” he said.
In order to volunteer for next year’s Project Graduation, one must be available to work, whether it be the full shift or part of the celebration. “Some people work the whole night, some work the first part, some the second part,” he said.
Around 3 a.m., there was an “American Idol” type competition at the state in front of Dick’s Sporting Goods. At 4 a.m., the majority of the prizes and cash are given away to remaining graduates.
“Every senior remaining at 4 a.m. won a significant amount of money,” Tabor said. “We appreciate the support of all the businesses, because without them we couldn’t do it.”
If any graduate chose to leave before the celebration was over, they had to sign out and call their parents, Tabor said. “We don’t want parents thinking they are here safe and they leave. That is for their safety.”
Those remaining when the celebration dismissed at 5 a.m. were given coupons for free breakfast at McDonald’s.
When this year’s celebration was over, planning began for the 2020 Project Graduation celebration.