Post graduation party is a safe celebration with lots of ‘wow’

It all started in seventh grade.

About halfway through the school year of 2008, parents of seventh graders received a letter from the Wilton Youth Council advising that the time has come to start thinking ahead to graduation, and to start their class project — Project 2013.

Any other place on earth that might sound crazy, but here in Wilton, it has become the normal course of action for the annual Post Graduation Party or, as it is affectionately known, “PGP.”

Since 1987, when the first PGP took place in Wilton, the event has become a rite of passage for each year’s graduating class. Seniors look forward to the all-night party, the details of which are guarded closely and kept secret by the legions of parents who organize and fund the event. The event takes place at Middlebrook School beginning at 10:30 and ending just before dawn on Sunday morning. This year, all members of the Class of 2013 are invited — Wilton High School graduates as well as graduates from private high schools.

But what exactly is PGP, and why on earth does planning begin six years in advance?

“PGP is a gift that senior class parents give to their children,” says Wilton Youth Council President Nan Merolla. “The event was conceptualized as a way to provide students with a safe, drug- and-alcohol free way to celebrate their graduation.”

The event took root in Wilton following a tragic 1983 graduation-night accident in Ridgefield that claimed the life of one student. Wilton parents responded by taking a proactive approach to keeping kids safe by creating an event so fabulous, so spectacular the kids wouldn’t dare miss it.

“Integral to every PGP is a significant ‘wow’ factor,” says Eileen Schneidman, who along with Susan Lash is chairing this year’s event.  “Going back to the beginning, it’s always been understood that PGP would have to be pretty special to become the ‘destination of choice’ for students to want to spend graduation night in Middlebrook.”

But wow effects don’t come easy, nor are they cheap, which is why planning begins years in advance. “The first step is for parents to come together and set up an advisory committee,” says Ms. Lash, who stepped up to chair “Project 2013” when this year’s seniors were in seventh grade, and has maintained her leadership role. “The first few years are spent providing student and parent social activities, including parent coffees, student skating outings, and a safe driver night, just to name a few,” she explains. “We really don’t get the creative juices flowing until the middle of junior year.”

The average PGP event costs about $150 per student, with the bulk of the money coming from parent contributions, fund-raising venues and donations from local businesses. About 98% of the graduating class will attend, and virtually all will stay for the entire event.

“It’s important to keep in mind that this is their graduation night, and the goal is really twofold,” Ms. Lash explains. “On the one hand, we want the kids to have a blast and throw a party that they will never forget. But at the same time, we want to keep the kids off the roads and safe, which of course more than justifies the cost.”

So what is the secret of success? Well, it’s a secret, especially with regard to the theme.

Everyone involved is sworn to secrecy and there is a tremendous buildup of suspense as the date draws near. Beginning in early May, students are given hints about the theme, which culminates in early June when invitations are hand-delivered to each student’s home, and the theme is officially unveiled. If you happen to be in the high school during this time, you can almost feel the excitement in the building.

Meanwhile, teams of parents will spend thousands of hours planning and creating the event.

“So many parents have donated their time and expertise,” Ms. Lash says. “The Class of 2013 has an incredibly talented set of parents, and we have more volunteers raising their hands to help every day. We’ve had volunteers from all walks of life — graphic design, television production, marketing, food design, sales, finance, and of course, a couple lawyers — all step up to help. Just as our students came together for their ‘Awesome 80s Show,’ parents are coming together to put on an awesome PGP!”

At this point in the process, with not much time left, volunteers are working at a frenetic pace.

“I expect that more than a few are putting in 50-, 60-hour weeks,” she added. Major activities including set design and building, special effects, class tributes, and planning for games, food and surprises. Lots of surprises.

It’s all a labor of love, though, with a common goal in mind —  transforming Middlebrook School into a thematic wonderland to the extent the building is unrecognizable as a school. Hundreds of parent volunteers will swarm into Middlebrook the second the final bell sounds on Friday, June 21. Once the Middlebrook students clear out, PGP volunteers take over. In past years, the volunteers have had a longer time frame in which to get the job done, but this year, thanks to Superstorm Sandy and the harsh winter, time will be short.

One way or another, the job will get done says Ms. Schneidman.  “Come June 22nd, we want our children to walk in and feel the love and congratulations from an entire community.”