High school graduation parties have become quite decadent over the years. Hedonistic, even. Project Grad parties started out as a way to keep kids from drinking, driving and crashing on the night of their graduation, and now involve such luxuries as live bands, offshore cruises, even renting out a movie theater or shopping mall.
The members of the 2016 graduating class of Island Pacific Academy in Kapolei just weren’t into any of that. They started planning for graduation in their junior year and told their parents they thought a lavish party would be a waste of money.
“They said things like, ‘I’d rather do something meaningful’ or ‘Why can’t we all just hang out together and do something to make our island a better place?’” said parent Diane Button.
The surprised parents checked to make sure the students really meant what they were saying. They sent out surveys to each of the 39 students. Indeed, it was what they all wanted. No expensive party. Let’s give the money to charity.
“This class really bonded,” said IPA Head of School Gerald Teramae. “They’re so diverse in their thinking and values, but they came together on this common value that they share.”
On Friday night, after IPA’s commencement ceremony at Lanikuhonua in Kapolei, the graduates changed into comfortable clothes and caught a bus for their un-fancy grad night party.
The first stop was the Kapolei Target store, where the graduates played a scavenger hunt game. The students formed teams, and each team was given a $300 budget and a shopping list of items to be donated to a local food pantry. The team that got the most stuff under budget and within the time limit was the winner.
From there, the graduates went to classmate Jackson Button’s house in Waialua for a simple, old-fashioned backyard party with s’mores, guitars and pingpong.
“These kids love to play games. They have told us that we could leave them alone with a ball of yarn and they would find a way to have a good time. That actually happened once,” Diane Button said.
But the parents did plan a few surprises for the graduates. At the party, they revealed to the students how their Project Grad money — money the students had raised — would be spent.
Waianae Mountains Watershed Partnership will receive $1,000 in tools and supplies from the graduates, and next year’s senior class will use those tools to plant 39 trees in honor of the new alumni. Kahuku High School will receive $2,000 to help send their students to a National Science Conference in Tennessee this summer.
And there were other donations. The graduates’ wish list was fulfilled, but none of the wishes was for themselves.
Jackson’s sister, Hannah, a sophomore at IPA, wanted to do something special for her brother’s graduation gift. She established a nonprofit called IPA Gives Back with the intention of carrying forward the values of Jackson’s class.
“Project Grad started out as such a great idea, but how are you going to grow that program?” Teramae asked. Indeed, if the party only gets bigger, all you get is a big, expensive party. “This is what you want to teach students as they move to the next phase of life — what it means to be a good person.”