WESTFIELD, NJ - Westfield High School graduates enjoyed some innocent and alcohol free fun after their graduation on Thursday night at The Club at Ricochet in South Plainfield during the Project Graduation BASH.

Project Graduation is a program offered at high schools throughout the country which provides a safe, adult-supervised and substance free celebration for graduates. The program was initiated in Maine 31 years ago in response to a number of drug and alcohol related deaths among teens during the prom and graduation season.

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The Westfield BASH is sponsored by the Optimist Club of Westfield, which is a youth-centered volunteer group that does a number of projects in the Westfield area. Project Graduation is one of its main projects. Held every year at the Ricochet Club, the BASH features many activities for the students to choose from to keep them entertained and most importantly, safe. Generally about 85% of the graduates attend the all night party. This year over 360 students - the largest number to attend yet - arrived in eight large yellow school buses at 11:00 PM to enjoy the 22nd annual BASH.

Darielle Walsh, Optimist Club Community Vice President, and her husband, Mr. Mike Walsh, one of the charter members of the Westfield Optimist Club Chapter, have stayed until 5:00 in the morning at each of the 22 BASHes. Mrs. Walsh noted that the students don’t really change from year to year. What changes the most, according to Mrs. Walsh is the music. Even though there is not a lot of change in what the students enjoy most about the night, the planners do try to accommodate each class. A small group of students was surveyed to find out what they like most about their BASH.

This year, for example, in addition to the pizza and sandwiches that are always a big hit, the students said they liked coffee, so they got their own personal café station. Cupa Cabana, a coffee catering company that serves the tri-state area, provided the students with both hot and iced coffee, lattes, and mochas, as well as frozen daiquiri and pina colada smoothies. Rock'n Joe's Coffeehouse, a favorite local spot on Prospect street in Westfield, also provided a generous donation of coffee drinks for the graduates. The coffees were popular, especially for those students enjoying the more luxurious spa-centered activities. Two girls, for example, told me that they started the evening with iced coffees, then got 10 minute massages and were waiting to get manicures.

Others preferred the less laid back entertainment and instead headed straight for the sports - volleyball, basketball, or racquet ball. Many students swam in the pool. And at one point, a serious water polo game erupted. Some were much more interested in relaxing and floated about on rafts and in tubes. Among the other games available were foosball, air hockey, ping pong and video games.

Down one hallway, there was a Fortune Teller and a Palm Reader. One student, Francine Nieva, who will attend Stevens Institute of Technology in the fall, waited in line for an hour for a reading of only about three minutes. She said it was fun and pretty lighthearted and suspected that her time was cut shorter than others since she had laughed and seemed skeptical.  

One of the new choices this year were two bouncy rides. One came equipped with a Velcro wall which students jumped at wearing Velcro suits and then between squeals of laughter, struggled to peel themselves noisily off. In the center of the other bouncy ride, sat a mechanical bull, and student after student bounced up onto it only to be knocked right off. One girl admitted that it was not actually fun as she rubbed her legs and back. Her friend, Nadirah Davis, on the other hand, enjoyed the ride even though she was off almost as quickly as she’d jumped on.

The room was filled with such silly fun. The students were tumbling all over the bouncy rides and telling each other to try it, laughing hysterically. The same kind of silliness was carried out into the main room where there was a caricaturist, a magician and Magic Bob who made intricate balloon animals while teasing all of the students who came his way.

The magician, Richard Benninghoff, has traveled over four hours each way every year for almost twenty years from State College, Pennsylvania. He entertains groups of students who surround him while he does card tricks and makes a pink scarf appear out of an invisible purse.  He is also the headliner for the night and performs for all of the students between 3:45 and 4:30 before they are picked up by the busses.

The bouncy rides, the magician, the balloons, the caricatures, were all such innocent forms of entertainment. The graduates became silly and lighthearted, having the chance to embrace some real childhood fun for just a little while longer, before heading into the adult world.

And what party would be complete without food and dancing?  A food station was set up complete with standard party snacks - fruit, veggies and dip, and cheese, crackers and pepperoni. There were also sandwiches, and pizza was brought in at different points throughout the night. Everyone was served ice cream at 3:00 AM.

DJ 4B, 2010 graduate, Bobby McKeon, spun dance music all night. Playing mostly hip hop and dance hits, DJ 4B had a steady crowd on their feet throughout the night.

The DJ was not the only person to return for the BASH. The party is a community effort every year. In addition to the work done on behalf of the Optimist Club, local vendors participate. Mrs. Walsh contracts vendors each year for all of the activities. The thirty adults who participated, many who have participated since the beginning, are also from the community. The 17 chaperones in the orange staff shirts are all past graduates. The Optimist Club reaches out to alumni who help with everything from chaperoning, to running activities, to picking up pizza.

Four chaperones, Liz Penczak, Liz Kamel, Reid Smith, and Caraugh Ball, also members of the Class of 2010, were in charge of the massage sign-up. They all remembered their own BASH fondly and came back to help out and see friends.

One of the manicurists who worked at the Nail Art table, Monica Gildea, also a Westfield graduate, has been helping out since 1993. She greatly enjoyed her own BASH and sees the event as important and fun. She doesn’t understand why all of the graduates don’t participate and said, “Whatever they’re doing tonight, they could do tomorrow night.”

Marty Silverman has volunteered for the event for the last fifteen years. His own daughter graduated two years ago, but he continues to help out. Mr. Silverman spoke about what a long night it is, at the end of which both students and adult chaperones are tired. But he explained that it is long on purpose. Since the goal is to ultimately keep students safe, they end the event late to ensure that students couldn’t get in their cars at 2:00 AM and drive down the shore or to parties where there would be alcohol, for instance.

Sometime before midnight, a fire alarm went off. Everyone spilled out of the building calmly and quietly. But the drill did not stop everyone from having fun. Students who had been swimming stood, wrapped in towels, and played with a beach ball during the few minutes everyone had to wait before going back into the building. When it was time to go back, someone yelled, “Back to the pool,” and a girl said, “I just wanna dance.” And the party was back in full swing in a matter of minutes.

Students went from activity to activity, or they gathered in different lounge areas throughout the building to spend time with their friends. One student Rachel Putowski, who will split her time next year between work and the Fashion Institute of Technology, was grabbing a cup of coffee to, “wake up a little” at around 1:00. She said the most enjoyable part of the day was graduating, and then “this. . . coming here for this and spending time with everyone for the last time.”