'sober' Party Is Actually Fun!
Kids in Carmel and Pacific Grove shocked to learn that parents and teachers know how to be 'cool.'
Thursday, June 19, 2003
It is night in the village of Asta La Vista and the gossamer sky is lit by white evening stars. A fountain trickles in the center of town, surrounded by sleek wooden benches, created for the villagers by the Pacific Grove High School shop class.
Wood-beamed adobes border the town square. Rich with color, each opens its doors to a different kind of fun.
The casino proves to be the hot spot--roulette, craps, blackjack and poker are the preferred modes of entertainment. A steady line of anxious grads wait to hear what fortune teller Lee Ann Luongo foresees. At midnight, the festivities reach a climax when hypnotist Travis Cox turns some of the male villagers into laboring pregnant women and one lucky village girl into Britney Spears.
Tonight there is a fantasy island tucked away in America''s Last Hometown, providing giddy graduates a safe place to celebrate their final day of high school. Between the sky and the adobes, I can see the words "Spirit" and "Pride" painted in the signature red and gold. It''s Electric plays in the background.
Earlier, the Pacific Grove High School campus was abuzz with young men and women in their spring best. Many of the soon-to-be PGHS Alumni had already donned their fluid red gowns; others held them proudly under one arm.
They arrived beaming, some with glowing parents in tow, others with friends and fellow graduates. One cruised past Asilomar on a moped, a flash of scarlet flying behind him in the breeze.
High school graduation, the consummation of a four-year-long love-hate relationship, can precede a party to remember--for those who can actually remember it the next day. For many graduating seniors, it can be an excuse to get wasted. But that was not what these grads had in mind. Nor did the hundred or so volunteers who vowed to make the night special--and sober.
"The kids are gonna love it," announced Lisa Hanes, who is introduced as "the food lady."
"We have candy, games, a tattoo artist. We''re going to feed them all night long."
A burly man with a big beard, bus driver John Stanton (aka Big John), says it''s his third year helping with the Sober Graduation party. He says he was up until midnight last Friday, putting up the ceiling. "It''s the most difficult part of decorating," he says, "but it makes such a difference."
A lot of parents, teachers and volunteers spent a lot of time working to turn this high school gym into a Mexican town. While this kind of effort might be expected to raise teenaged eyebrows in pained embarrassment, the opposite has happened. A small miracle has occurred. The kids actually think it''s cool.
"You''d be surprised what you can do with carpet rolls and cardboard," says Karen Rodriguez.
Rodriguez and fellow volunteers work year-round to fundraise and organize. Planning for the decorations starts in January. In the week leading up to the event, 13-hour days allow just enough time to complete the finishing touches.
Rodriguez has been involved with Sober Graduation since her son was a freshman. She stayed involved after he graduated in 2001, and this year she is the chairperson.
"We have about 100 volunteers and five really strong committees," she says, standing under an outdoor heater. "A lot of people in the community help out by providing donations. But it''s a lot harder to get people to stay to clean up.
For all the fun, games and trips to the pool, Sober Graduation is not just about having fun. "Since it started in ''92," she points out, "there hasn''t been a single alcohol-related death at the school."
"It''s a pretty important thing," agrees Valerie Tingley, mother of a 2001 graduate and an incoming freshman. "That''s why I stay involved."
"My daughter loved it; she told me it was the last opportunity for her to just play with kids she''s known since the second grade. She said to me, ''College is for drinking. I just want to enjoy my last days at high school.''"
The goal for the event is to get graduates to come and stay the entire night. "What we''d really like for senior raffle next year is a car," Tingley says. "We really want to get kids to stay until 5am. They have to be present to win, so we''d like something for the senior raffle that would get kids to stay all night."
Inside the village at 11:30pm, it seems to be working.
"It really doesn''t look like our gym," Lindsay Reese exclaims as we ogle a couple of her fellow graduates turned blow-up Sumo wrestlers. "It''s really fun here. I didn''t think I''d be awake for this part, but I''m having fun."
"I think it''s great," Katie Miller says after returning to the casino from a trip to the pool. "There''s a lot to do. The food is good. It''s fun.
"I looked forward to it. There''s always rumor about what the theme will be. It''s really special to see all the parents and PTA do so much just for one night. It''s the last time you get to see everybody."
"You have to stay for the hypnotist show," Chantel Brischke volunteers.
I hit up the coffee bar. One Dixie-cup latte, straight up, please.
While sitting in wait, I am approached by Nick Villareal. He asks me if I''m a student. I tell him no, just a reporter, and ask him what he thinks about the party.
"It''s a lot better than getting drunk," he says. "You see a lot of people here that you see at parties that are totally wasted. It''s nice to see them here, mature enough to enjoy themselves without being drunk."
I think: If only more guys my age thought that way. I don''t want to leave. I feel guilty about having so much fun. At that moment, glowing in the light of the stars, atop brown metal folding chairs, two cute, female grads make the Macarena seem hip.
The next day, at Carmel High School, I get a glimpse of the process of putting together a Sober Graduation Party.
John Edwards, who, along with his wife Vickie has volunteered his time for this event for the past six years, says enticing high-school seniors to a party can be a serious challenge.
"To get the ones that go out and get wild, you need to put a carrot out there," Edwards said.
It doesn''t hurt to have Ray Parks, a local architect, help formulate a blueprint. The most basic construction costs, Edwards explained, are around $5,000, but it''s the donations and time spent by volunteers that is the most valuable.
"It becomes a great community builder," he says. "There''s something special about working together."
As in PG, planning for the event occurs throughout the year here at Carmel High, and includes teacher participation and involvement in the project.
"Historically, this was put on by the parents of undergrads to allow senior parents to have the time to enjoy the kids before they go," Edwards says. "It''s especially a chance for the men to get involved. Russ Campbell, for example, whose daughter is graduating, is here every night. It''s everybody. At one time there are seven families helping out."
On Friday the 13th, one week after my visit to Asta La Vista, I was finally off to Never, Never Land--a fantasy world filled with pirates, Tinkerbell and Lost Boys. On my way out, Edwards stopped me in the doorway. He began to tell me about a 23-year-old Carmel graduate who died recently in an automobile accident.
"Something like that affects the whole community. In 11 years, not one kid has died. How much is that worth?"
Carmel High is holding a fundraiser for next year''s sober grad party on Sunday, June 27. Call 659-8505.