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Joan Walker serves Madison in dual roles: She chairs the Democratic Town Committee and heads the team of 200 volunteers who work to ensure the success of Nite in Hand, a traditional celebration held every year on graduation night to honor Daniel Hand High School seniors. (Photo by Maria Caulfield/The Source | Buy This Photo)
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The Iron Throne fashioned from a thousand swords sits in a dusky room lit only by the scant light from a few candles and the backdrop of a window with an iconic star. In another room, the soot-stained engine of Hogwarts Express emerges from a dark tunnel. A third area reveals a frighteningly lifelike figure of the Hulk smashing through a solid brick wall.
These are some of the sets used in the 2019 Nite in Hand event with the theme, “A Nite at the Movies.”
Started in 1989, Nite in Hand is a traditional Daniel Hand High School (DHHS) celebration held every year on graduation night. The event is perhaps the school’s biggest and most memorable occasion for its senior class.
Longtime Madison resident Joan Walker should know. She’s been involved with the lighting design for the sets for 11 years now. This year, she heads the entire endeavor with 200 volunteers organizing the event and transforming the school’s main hallway, bridge, second-floor hallway, cafeteria, and restrooms into one cohesive theme.
“We basically build about seven to eight different sets, like theater sets, that take up the areas,” Joan says.
The 2020 Nite in Hand event is also special for Joan. She has two children: Chris, 22, and Oak, 18, who is graduating from DHHS as member of the National Honor Society.
As in past years, volunteers keep the 2020 theme in strict confidence, not to be revealed until the customary walk-through on graduation day.
But what is not secret is the effort and dedication of the parents and volunteers. Each year, the work and the end product are worthy of a local award, if not a gleaming Oscar trophy.
“It takes a village to do this. It really does,” Joan says. “There are so many people who volunteer to make the designs.”
The project is indeed challenging by any measure. The planning, organizing, and execution of the event take almost the entire school year. Initial plans normally begin in September or October and the entire project concludes with the breakdown of all the sets shortly after the event, with the reusable pieces placed in storage until the next year.
Because the theme remains a secret until graduation day, the sets are designed and constructed off-site. Scheduling and logistics are key when the sets are installed in the designated areas.
Nite in Hand itself promises to be a fun-filled evening. After the seniors have gone through their graduation ceremony and celebrated with their families and loved ones, they return to the high school for the event, which starts at 10 p.m. and ends at 5 a.m. Organizers and adult chaperones ensure that the celebration is in a safe and substance-free environment.
From pasta and sushi in the evening to bagels and donuts in the morning, food at the event is ample. The festivities also feature a variety of attractions including music provided by a DJ, rounds of Bingo, inflatables in the gym, an assortment of games, a tattoo artist, a fortune teller, and a hypnotist.
Joan and her team of volunteers also know they have to prepare for every possible need, scenario, and circumstance.
“If kids do decide to drive, their cars are valet parked and their keys are taken. They can’t leave—once that door closes, you’re in for the night, so to speak. And we have safety officers there. We have the fire marshal there, we have somebody who’s an EMT there,” she explains.
Fundraising efforts range from the sale of lawn signs for the 2020 Class to sponsorships from businesses and parents. There is also the annual Nite in Hand auction, which for this year will take place at Camp Laurelwood.
Tens of thousands of dollars will be needed to ensure a successful, fun, and safe event for the seniors.
Joan and the volunteers also strive for 100 percent participation from the graduating class. Early registration is $80, or $90 after Feb. 29, but funding can be made available to allow every graduate the chance to attend the event.
The work is a marathon of sorts for Joan. Yet a project that requires her to lead, design, and persevere for the long haul are not all that foreign to her.
Professionally, she has had experience starting a company and building it from the ground up.
Building a Business
Joan is managing director and chief financial officer at UNAPEN, an information technology and consulting company she co-founded in 1991 with two others.
Based in Meriden, UNAPEN derives its name from Unified Application Environments. UNAPEN is made up of financial services professionals who help clients capitalize on the value of technology.
Joan explains that the company offers a three-pronged approach to serving clients.
“We have our products. We design software for financial services. We provide solutions, where we personally go out and do consulting on either technology or operational structure. And then the third prong is services, where we do network design and network security. We call it IT Complete, where we ensure for both financial services and nonprofit small businesses, that PCs are updated with proper patches, data is backed up, and that our clients have security for their data.”
The company’s software offerings include ClientLogix, a client relationship management (CRM) and business solution that simplifies the daily challenges of investment advisors, wealth managers, and financial offices; Price Fusion, an automated data bridge from Refinitiv (formerly Thomson Reuters) to deliver high-quality data and eliminate surprises in monthly data costs; and ClientRep, a software solution that integrates and incorporates data from multiple sources, then automatically creates client statements, meeting packages, and internal management reports for clients.
The company has 10 employees, but, as Joan says, “at any given point in time, it can go up to 15 people. But we’re very focused and nimble and I think that serves us well. We have a very boutique offering.”
Joan says that the company’s clients are mostly in the East coast, but adds, “we’ve had clients as far as California and Washington state.”
Aside from her professional work, Joan got busy serving Madison on the board of selectmen from 2012-’17.
“The way I was raised was that we always give back to the community...My father was on the Board of Finance in our town for years. And so, I enjoyed being a part of the Board of Selectmen. I loved just meeting people and hearing what their thoughts were on what they thought the town should be like,” she says.
She resigned from her post when her father suffered a health setback and then later passed away.
Today, she still serves Madison as the Democratic Town Committee chair. She also continues to serve the community through her volunteer work with Nite in Hand.
“I never stopped doing Nite in Hand because it brings me joy,” she explains.
She says it is a gratifying experience to see the community come together to make the event a success. She notes that many businesses pitch in by offering services and products at generously discounted rates.
The event, she says, is “absolutely worth it. Any parent that’s been involved in this will tell you it’s worth it. And I believe it’s the community’s last gift to these graduates to allow them to have one more special night together as a class.”
“We’re investing in their lives,” she adds. “We want to invest in their lives, and we want to make sure that the next phase is kicked off with a nice ending.”
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