Seniors at Key West High School have been waiting for this moment all year: The night they get to throw their caps in the air, kick up their heels, and bid the "Home of the Conchs" goodbye.
Thanks to Operation Graduation, many of them will actually have vivid memories of the occasion.
"It's a tradition here at Key West High," said Neda Preston, an instructor and director of athletics, who is co-sponsoring the event with Clinton Storr, a paraprofessional. "I guess, going on 25 to 30 years now. This is my first year doing this, so it's going to be a little different from years past, but lots of fun."
This drug- and alcohol-free event provides a way for the graduating class to blow off steam without getting in trouble with the law, or ending up with a hangover that could kill Keith Richards.
"They start off at the school," Preston said. "Graduation should be finished by about 9:30 p.m. And then, at about 11, the last shuttle will leave for the Grand Key, where they'll have food and dancing. At about 1:45 or 2 we'll split up, and some of the kids will take trolleys to go bowling at Boca Chica. The others will go back to the school, where we'll have games, like volleyball, or they can watch a movie. Then, around 4 a.m., we'll have breakfast in the school cafeteria, and prizes for everybody. Good ones, too, like iPads, iPods, and stuff you'd need in a dorm room, like microwaves, and cube fridges. There will be some cash prizes too."
Preston said that Operation Graduation was originally conceived to provide a fun time for the students, and a worry-free evening for their parents. Preston and Storr are still looking for parent volunteers to help make the magic happen, as well as donations of decent prizes, gift certificates, and cash.
"It's one last night with all their high school friends before they go off to college, or start their career, or whatever they're going to be doing."
Though it's been made clear to all participants that Operation Graduation is a strictly chemical-free event, Preston said the organizers are going to be prepared for any eventuality.
"There will be two police officers with us, doing a detail, at least through the dance," she said. "If anything is suspicious, we'll take care of it in a professional manner, and the parents will have to come and pick them up."
Parent Lisa Castillo, who is mother to a senior at KWHS, is taking part as a volunteer this year for the first time.
"All the kids are really excited about doing it," she said. "It's just grown over the years, and it's a great way to have an alcohol and drug free night. This proves that the kids can still have fun without doing that stuff."
Castillo is also helping out with fundraising, and lamented the fact that the tough times have led to smaller than usual cash donations.
"We're really trying to raise money to help with the prizes, because the drawings at the end of the night are partly there to entice the kids to stay," she said. "Everybody seems to be going through tough times right now, but this community's really supportive. I'm sure we'll pull it off."
To make a cash or prize donation to Operation Graduation, or to volunteer to help out, call Neda Preston at 305-293-1549, ext. 54339, or email firstname.lastname@example.org, or email@example.com