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Heather Mackenzie, treasurer of all-volunteer Project Graduation, says parents, local businesses, and the community are making special efforts to help ensure the Guilford High School Class of 2020 will feel celebrated and supported by their town on graduation night. (Photo courtesy of Heather Mackenzie )
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For the first time in the history of Guilford’s all-volunteer Project Graduation program, there will be no all-night, substance-free party for the graduating class. But thanks to this remarkable community and some inventive ideas, the Guilford High School (GHS) Class of 2020 will be celebrated and supported on graduation night, says Heather Mackenzie, Project Graduation 2020 treasurer.
This year’s modified commencement plans were developed by Guilford Public Schools, which is separate from the parent-run Project Graduation program.
“The work that we usually do includes facilitating the generosity within our community to come together and pull off the party,” says Heather. “So this year we’re finding different ways to make it special.”
Heather says people have been pitching in community-wide with ideas and plans to help make as many memorable graduation moments as possible for the seniors.
“There are tons of parents stepping up to partner with us and get things done, and there are things that other groups are planning and we’re lending our support to them as volunteers or by financially lending our support,” she says.
Among ideas parents are working on is a car parade procession for seniors on graduation night as they head to the Guilford Fairgrounds for the modified commencement event. On the Town Green, where graduation exercises are traditionally held, Project Graduation will show a sign of support beginning this week by hanging a celebratory GHS Class of 2020 banner.
“If you think about it, they’ve moved graduation from the heart of our town, where it’s always been a great community event—the town kind of saw the kids off,” says Heather. “So I hope everything we’re all trying to do for them has the same feeling, that the community cares for them.”
To make a community connection with each member of the senior class, Project Graduation has also come up with a special “pay it forward” modest financial gift for them this year, says Heather.
“We’ve taken what we normally would have used to help to defray the costs of the party and we’re going back to the students to give a gift to them. The idea is that we’re able to support you because the community supports us, so please consider using this gift to shop local,” she says.
The gift will be given together with a special message in a card which grads will find in Project Graduation swag bags given to them at the commencement event, says Heather.
Project Graduation will also still raffle off the GHS Class of 2020 quilt, which has become a cherished annual highlight of the graduation party. Every member of the class gets a free raffle ticket. The crafter of the quilt for the past six years has been Heather’s mom (and past Person of the Week), noted quilt artist Diane Wright. This will be her final quilt for Project Graduation, Heather says.
“She started making the GHS quilt when my oldest daughter, Ainsley, was in 8th grade. So I really started [with Project Graduation] because my mom, as a quilter, had been tapped for that senior gift,” says Heather. “The neat part she’s enjoyed is that each quilt is made [to include] things that are from their four years at Guilford High School. So it’s a really nice way, for whoever gets it, to remember their four years.”
Of course, the last few months of the Class of 2020’s four years at GHS have been unexpectedly different than what any other senior class has experienced. It’s one of the reasons Project Graduation and many other groups and individuals are working hard to make this a very special graduation.
“It is unfortunate that they don’t have some of the normalcy,” says Heather. “This is a lot for them. They have disruptions, at the same time they’re going to have the real disruption of graduation and moving on to something different that may be on the horizon. But they didn’t expect to have this.”
When the pandemic closed GHS in March, it also shuttered or dramatically reduced services at many local businesses which have supported Project Graduation in the past. Fortunately, one of the ways Project Graduation operates so seamlessly each year is by putting aside seed money for the next group of volunteers to begin their efforts for the next senior class, says Heather.
“Funding is a little down this year, but last year they did a really, really good job and they left us with enough seed money so that we can do this,” she says. “The local businesses that support us, we are thinking of them as well. They’ve supported us over the years and some of them, frankly, they can’t write us a check this year. And we appreciate that because they haven’t been open for three months.”
Heather has served as Project Graduation treasurer for two years and signed on as a Project Graduation volunteer four years ago when her daughter Ainsley was a GHS junior. This year, her youngest daughter, Claire, will graduate with the GHS Class of 2020.
As a parent of a member of the GHS Class of 2020, Heather says she has seen remarkable character among this group of young people, especially in the face of the pandemic and the current civil unrest.
“I do think they have a more mature perspective,” says Heather, adding that, rather than being upset about the modified graduation they will experience, “I think they are probably more concerned about what our society’s like. Before [the pandemic], they were outspoken about climate and social inequality, and now they’re showing their concern for what these disruptions are like in the social fabric. I think they do realize [modified graduation] is a sacrifice they’re making, but they encourage me because they have this perspective. They’re standing up for their generation.”
The 2020 guide to the Madison Chamber of Commerce has arrived!