Following their commencement ceremonies on Thursday, June 5, as many as 400 South Aiken and Aiken High School graduates will hang out at one all-night party – one where they have chosen not to drink and drive.

For nearly 20 years, Project Graduation has long emerged as a fixture for seniors from the two schools, as well as private and home-school students in the Area I attendance area.

The event will be held at the H. Odell Weeks Activities Center from 11:30 p.m. to 6 a.m. – staffed by parents and other volunteers.

The teenagers can participate in a wide range of activities, including dancing, casino-type games, lots of food and a photo booth.

Bethanne Farrell, an event coordinator, said fundraising is still underway in difficult economic times.

UPS Custom Brokerage and a lot of “mom and pop” businesses have been supporting the program financially. Other volunteer services will be provided by The Family Y, Young Life, the Odell Weeks staff, the Aiken Sertoma Club, the Aiken Sunrise Rotary Club and Chris’ Camera.

Farrell has volunteered for Project Graduation for about seven years – beginning before her oldest daughter, Caryn, started her senior year.

Her youngest daughter, Shannon, will soon graduate, but Farrell expects to remain involved in some way.

“For the first couple of years, I volunteered because the parents (of younger students) were needed to take over,” she sad. “But the point of the whole evening is to keep the kids off the road.”

To emphasize that message, Steve Deibel of Aiken Driving Academy will attend the event and let the students try on goggles that affect their vision and perception just as alcohol does.

The Project Graduation program got underway through the efforts of former Aiken resident Becky Lock.

Late in 1994, she had heard about Project Graduation events in other cities. She told her son, David, about it, and he quickly encouraged her to pursue the idea. When David died a few months later, Lock organized the initiative as a tribute to his memory.

Representatives of Young Life will assist parents during Project Graduation.

Farrell is especially delighted that she will be joined by some young adults who attended the event following their own commencement. Among them is her daughter, Caryn, who has returned to Project Graduation since she finished South Aiken in 2009.

“I think it’s awesome to have a safe place for the seniors,” Caryn said. “Five years later, I still have a lot of fun there.”

Those interested in sending donations to the program may send them to: Project Graduation, P.O. Box 223, Aiken, S.C. 29802.

Senior writer Rob Novit is the Aiken Standard’s education reporter and has been with the newspaper since September 2001.