- Associated Press - Sunday, May 17, 2015

FAIRMONT, W.Va. (AP) - The people who have been working with Project Graduation in Marion County for the past few decades believe the project is what it is today because of the mothers who are involved.

Since 1988, moms across Marion County have put in long volunteer hours to make sure their children and other students would have a high school graduation party.

Some of those mothers include Mandy Steele, Roberta Steele and Connie VanGilder.

Mandy said in 1988 the first Project Graduation was held in Marion County. She said the first one was only for Fairmont Senior graduates.

Getting the first one going took several parents volunteering along with the support from the community. Mandy said $25,000 needed to be raised for the project.

“Those parents, God bless them, they were just remarkable,” Mandy said. “And the businesses were supportive. The community helped out a lot. It was great.”

The next year, in 1989, all three high schools in Marion County were brought together for one Project Graduation.

Since then, Mandy, Roberta and Connie have seen many changes in the party, excluding one thing - the heart and passion from the mothers.

Mandy was the coordinator of the project until Roberta took over in 1996.

Preparing for the night for around 300 high schools graduates wasn’t done in a short time. Mandy said planning and organizing the event starts in September of every year.

With three kids, Roberta’s heart was in Project Graduation, but even after her children graduated, that same passion was there.

“Some kids tell me this is the only graduation party they have,” she said. “Every graduate should get a party because graduating high school is an accomplishment.”

That’s one of the reasons the three have been part of Project Graduation for several years.

Roberta added that the community needs to continue to help with the project because it shows the graduates that their county cares about them.

“If we didn’t have the families and community behind us, there’s no way Project Graduation would be possible,” she said.

One of the reasons these moms have been so committed to Project Graduation is because of the kids. Although the adult volunteers might get tired during the overnight event, they push through just so those participating can enjoy themselves.

“The parents are dragging around 6 a.m., but they keep going because the kids are great and it’s for them,” Mandy said.

Over the years, Mandy, Roberta and Connie have noticed a change in the social culture of high school students and parents.

“When it first started and even up to a few years ago, you didn’t have to ask parents to help. They just did,” Mandy said.

Throughout the past 27 years of Project Graduation, coordinators and volunteers have seen a change in how the event is done, but they believe the core heart is still alive.

“Mandy and Roberta have so much heart for these kids even though they’re not their own,” Connie said. “They’re mothering these kids.”

Project Graduation continues to offer graduates a safe place to go on graduation night.

“Everyone knew where they were going on graduation night,” Roberta said. “It was to Project Graduation. Even the adults had as much fun as the kids.”

Connie said the event is a positive and safe environment for graduates. But in 2011, it almost didn’t happen.

“My son came home and said Project Graduation was canceled because there wasn’t enough help,” she said. “Marion County had to keep this good thing going.”

By getting the word out, Project Graduation was able to go on smoothly that year.

“We needed to celebrate those kids’ accomplishments,” Connie said.

At one point, the Marion County Parks and Recreation Commission stepped in to help this good thing keep going.

“It didn’t die in 2011, but it got resurrected in a different way,” Connie said. “You have to have somebody who keeps the passion and the heart going, and Mandy and Roberta do that with the help of others.”

Mandy said with the amount of kids, it takes more than one person to put on a Project Graduation.

“One person can’t do it all,” she said. “They can’t come in alone. They have to have 25 or more other people who stand with them.”

Connie added that people and businesses, even if they don’t have a kid graduating, can help in some way.

“Project Graduation is an opportunity to be involved in something that is bigger than you,” she said.

Roberta said Project Graduation is a place where every student is welcomed.

“Just to see the smiles on those kids’ faces is worth it when it’s 6 a.m. and you’re extremely tired,” she said.

Mandy added that although the students would enter through different doors, one for each school, once they were there, no one could tell who was from what school.

“There are no rivalries there,” she said. “It was fun to watch those kids interact.”

In the years of Project Graduation, the prizes have changed, locations have been different and the number of kids may have decreased, but the heart from the mothers and volunteers is still there.

“One thing that remains consistent about Marion County Project Graduation is that it’s still a very good thing that cannot continue to be or get better unless the community steps up and supports it wholeheartedly once again,” Roberta said.

This year’s Project Graduation will be held May 22 at Valley Worlds of Fun.

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Information from: Times West Virginian, https://www.timeswv.com


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