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09/19/2023 02:32 PM

Katherine Hilliar: Memories Are Made of This

As one of the organizers of Valley Regional High School's Safe Grad, Katherine Hilliar is already focused on graduation. Photo by Rita Christopher/The Courier

School has just started, but Katherine Hilliar is already focused on graduation. She is one of the organizers of Valley Safe Grad, the alcohol- and drug-free extended party that follows the Valley Regional High School (VRHS) graduation.

As Katherine points out, the party, as its name promises, keeps graduates safe and gives them one last time to enjoy each other as a class.

“They will all never be in the same place again,” she points out.

Katherine has experience on both sides of the party equation: In 1991, as a Valley Regional graduate herself, she attended the party. Last year, when her daughter Bailey graduated, she was a member of the organizing committee as she is again this year for her daughter Marley’s graduation.

The six weeks from Sept. 11 to Oct. 23 are key to the fundraising essential for the party. During this time, the raffle tickets that finance the evening are sold. Each ticket costs $20; only 1,200 tickets are sold.

There are five prizes, all gift cards that Katherine explains can be used at the winners’ discretion. Top prize is $1,000; there is also a $500 prize, two $200 prizes, and one for $100.

Raffle tickets cover the cost of the venue, the food, and the buses for transportation from VRHS to the location of the party. Attendees are not permitted to drive themselves.

Most of the class participates; last year, over 100 of the class of 120 attended the event. This year, there will likely be more students at the party since the senior class is larger, 142 students.

High school seniors themselves take part in a fundraising event: For $40, students can paint a 4 x 10 square on their assigned parking spaces with a design of their choice, provided it is first approved by Valley Regional principal Mike Barile and his staff. Seniors will do the painting Oct. 4, and the artwork remains for the school year for the school population and the community to enjoy.

“It’s the third year we’ve done this, and it is getting to be a new tradition,” Katherine says.

One of the most anticipated aspects of the party is its location, a secret not revealed until the buses bringing the graduates drive up to the venue.

“I just can’t tell. My lips are sealed,” she says.

According to Katherine, there is some urgency in locating and contracting with the site because most of the high schools in the area have similar evenings. Last year’s venue, in Vernon, featured bowling, laser tag, karaoke, and an arcade. In addition to the entertainment, the venue provides the food.

The event, under the sponsorship of the Tri-Town Youth Services Bureau, runs from 9:30 p.m. to 3 a.m.

The evening used to run longer but, Katherine says, was abbreviated a bit because of very tired partygoers.

“The night is a little shorter because we heard the kids are exhausted by then,” Katherine says. “I saw them getting off the bus last year, and they were ready to go to bed.”

The funds the Safe Grad committee raises are also used for the large pictures of each graduating senior that are put up, in turn, in Essex, Deep River, and Chester before graduation. The practice started during COVID-19 as a way, given the restrictions the pandemic imposed, of letting the community see the graduating seniors.

Katherine grew up in Chester. Her mother, Cary Hull, whom people regularly tell her she looks like, has been active in the community for many years, at one time editing the Main Street News. Now, Hull is president of the Chester Historical Society. Katherine’s husband, Trevor Hilliar, grew up in Essex, where his mother once owned Toys Ahoy! and his father Hilliar’s Foreign Motors Service.

Katherine began college at the University of Delaware but took time off to participate in a three-month Outward Bound program that included dog sledding in Minnesota and whitewater rafting in Texas on the Rio Grande.

“I loved it; I loved exploring; I loved being outside,” Katherine says.

She finished at Earlham College in Indiana with a major that combined psychology and sociology.

Her own children followed a somewhat different educational path. For six years, in the elementary grades, both were homeschooled.

Katherine says homeschooling made family activities easier since her husband’s job, training auto dealership staff, involved much travel.

She was, she now admits, a bit overwhelmed at the prospect in the beginning.

“I had to remind myself I didn’t have to have all the answers,” she says.

She found much material online, as well as through other homeschooling parents and in local libraries.

Both girls went back to formal classrooms at John Winthrop Middle School, but Katherine looks back on the experience with pleasure.

“I am very grateful for it. We didn’t have to rush from school to activities, to homework to bed,” she says. “They could explore things without thinking about whether the bell was going to ring.”

At present, Katherine is focused on making the final evening for graduating seniors one that will be both memorable and safe.

Still, no matter how hard she works, there is one thing that she will not be able to do: attend the Safe Grad party she has devoted so much time to putting together. The reason, as any parent of a teen can appreciate, is simple: The partygoers do not want their parents as chaperones. That job belongs to the parents of this year’s juniors.

To purchase raffle tickets online, visit