Pax helps grads celebrate safely

Hundreds of local graduates descended upon the station drill hall last week for Project Graduation, a series of all-night, alcohol- and drug-free parties that helps save lives by preventing traffic-related fatalities at graduation time.

For 19 out of the past 20 years, NAS Patuxent River has hosted this annual event. The only year the station wasn’t able to participate was in 1998 when the drill hall was closed for renovations.

“We owe a debt of thanks to the base for allowing us to come here every year,” said Joe Donick, alcohol and drug abuse prevention coordinator for St. Mary’s County, who organizes the event. “The cooperation we get from the base is incredible. It’s just a joy to work with you folks.”

Funded by the State’s Attorney’s Office, Project Graduation offers a safe environment for grads to have fun and let off steam while celebrating their hard-earned diplomas. Whether riding a bucking mechanical bull, jousting with giant inflated battering rams or climbing an Iron Man obstacle course, grads and their guests party hearty in a healthy atmosphere.

“All my friends are here. You can’t get bored,” said Tina Medoro, a Leonardtown High School graduate who attended one of last week’s Project Graduation parties. “There’s always something to do and people to hang out with.”

Rather than becoming bleary-eyed at a backyard beer bash, graduates enjoy hot dogs and sodas served by local Optimist Club members. They toss neon-colored balls down the station bowling alley, go for a swim in the station pool or pound the boards in a rousing game of basketball in the station gym. There’s laser tag, volleyball, pingpong, music and dancing.

“I think it’s great,” said Jeff Boyce, one of the all-night revelers at last week’s Project Graduation. “It’s something fun to do after graduation when everyone can get together and party one last time.”

The event isn’t one of those seemingly good ideas thought up by parents but disdained by their kids. Rather, it’s become a popular tradition among graduating seniors. According to Donick, about 70 percent of public high school graduates in St. Mary’s County attend the Project Graduation parties. And since the program began in 1984, Donick said there have been no alcohol-related traffic fatalities at graduation time.

“I just know that I’ve saved lives,” one volunteer told Donick, a bus driver who has transported graduates and their guests to and from the Project Graduation parties for the last 20 years.

It takes a legion of volunteers to make Project Graduation a success – more than 300 according to Donick. There’s the local sheriff’s deputies and state police who ensure that no drugs or alcohol are brought to the event. There’s the volunteers who prepare and serve the food. And there’s the station lifeguards and other MWR employees who lend a helping hand in the bowling alley and gym.

“Project Graduation is such a good program,” Donick said. “We’re so fortunate here in St. Mary’s County that everyone is willing to pull together to make this happen.”

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