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By Donna Cipolloni

Tester staff writer

Graduating high school is, arguably, the first rung on the ladder of success, and celebrating the event is as much a ritual as donning the cap and gown. For three decades, Naval Air Station Patuxent River has played a role in that celebration through its participation in Project Graduation.

The Project Graduation program began in St. Mary’s County in 1984, and since then, scores of high school seniors from all local county schools have commemorated graduation with a signed pledge to remain alcohol and drug free that evening — enabling them to attend an all-night celebration which, for the past 30 years, has taken place at the air station’s Drill Hall.

“We provide the venue for the activity and there’s no other place locally I’m aware of that can offer such a wide variety of activities under one roof,” said Hal Willard, fitness division manager.

After graduation ceremonies, participating students and their guest are transported via buses to Drill Hall for an evening with friends and classmates that includes bowling, swimming, dancing, softball, volleyball and a variety of games; all for free.

“The hub of activity is usually the bowling alley because that’s where the food and beverages are consumed,” Willard said. “There are hamburgers, hot dogs, fries, soft drinks, ice cream; and, at some point, they switch over to breakfast foods like eggs, bacon and sausage.”

Inflatable activities such as a big slide and bounce house are also an option and, around 11:30 p.m., buses transport anyone interested in seeing a movie over to Center Stage Theater.

“The first bus returning to the schools from base leaves at 2 a.m., with the last bus of the evening pulling out around 4,” Willard said.

Project Graduation is funded by the State’s Attorney’s Office and was founded after former State’s Attorney Walter Dorsey attended a meeting where he learned of a program in Bangor, Maine, in which the community and the Navy provided an after graduation party for high school seniors.

“Prior to 1984, there were numerous crashes, injuries and deaths associated with post- graduation activities, which included a lot of drinking,” said Kelsey Bush, youth coordinator for St. Mary’s County Department of Aging and Human Services, who handles the logistical side of the program in partnership with the State’s Attorney’s Office. “[Dorsey] was determined to bring the program to St. Mary’s to end the rash of young lives affected.”

Bush explained that since the program’s inception, there has not been an accident or fatality associated with graduation night activities; and in the last decade alone, more than 10,000 youths have participated.

St. Mary’s County School Superintendent Michael Martirano appreciates the program and all those whose combined efforts make it successful.

“Project Graduation is an outstanding program designed to keep our young people safe during graduation season,” he said. “It represents the best of our community in that it leverages the partnerships of so many fine organizations. [Pax River] has opened their doors wide by allowing the event to occur on base and we couldn’t do it without the venue they provide us.”

Other community volunteers include members of the Maryland State Police and St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Office who act as chaperones, and volunteers from local Optimists Clubs who provide the food and beverages.

“I absolutely love the program; the kids love it; and I commend all of our partners who work so hard to make this happen each year for our graduating seniors,” Martirano said.

On May 27, the installation played host to St. Mary’s Ryken High School and King’s Christian Academy, followed by Great Mills May 28; Chopticon May 29; and Leonardtown May 30. Two Calvert County high schools celebrated on different nights this week.