This year marks the 26th edition of Missoula's Senior Graduation Party. Community members who have been with it from the start, along with some who stayed involved even after their children graduated, are thankful and proud.
Since the party was created in 1983, not one graduate of a high school in Missoula County has died on graduation night.
In all those years, there have been only four arrests associated with the party.
And while the basic makeup, length and even the official name of the party have changed over time, the goal has not: to keep kids safe by giving them something fun and memorable to do on graduation night.
That's what attracted Missoula Police Capt. Dick Lewis to the first event in 1983 and has kept him involved ever since. It's why Angela Lind and Jeanne Franz of Missoula kept volunteering long after their youngest children graduated from high school.
"These kids are full of adrenaline, hormones, excitement," said Lind, who first got involved in 1992. "It is an accomplishment, and they are going to celebrate. And if you don't provide a place for them to celebrate, they will find a place."
Originally called the Senior All-Night Party, after a few years organizers figured out that by 3 a.m. or so, the graduates were physically and emotionally drained. So now it's the Senior Graduation Party, running from 8:30 p.m. to 3 a.m. - an hour after local bars close.
"By the time the adrenaline goes down and the evening wears on, 99 percent of them want to go home and go to bed," Lewis noted.
Lind and Franz get so much positive feedback, even years later, from former students and their parents, they never need reminding why it's important for the event to continue.
Even students not normally part of high school social circles seem to flourish at the party. Franz remembers one young man from a local group home who came on his own, wearing a suit that seemed a little out of place. She ended up giving him a ride home.
"He was gonna call a taxi," Franz recalled. "Even he seemed like he had a good time. He stayed until it was over."
The process begins anew each January with a parents' meeting to rebuild the committee structure and volunteer base.
Lewis said the University Center on the University of Montana campus has been an ideal venue. Beyond that, organizing the inaugural party was a bit of a shot in the dark.
"We had no idea how much money we needed (or) how many volunteers we would need," Lewis laughed.
It took many years - probably more than Lind, Franz or Lewis care to admit - to make what might seem like obvious adjustments. For example, organizers originally let the senior classes vote on a theme and decorations.
Then it struck them that they really didn't have to change the theme and decorations.
"We just took it upon the two of us," Lind said. "We're like, 'We have a new crowd every year. They don't know what we did last year.' "
So now themes and decorations carry over. Early on, the party went back and forth between Beach Party and Mardi Gras themes, but more recently they have stuck with Mardi Gras. Missoula's Bop-a-Dips were a regular feature for years, but now they lean toward younger local bands or disc jockeys.
Karaoke became so popular organizers had to devote a separate room to it that runs throughout the night.
They also operate a casino for the kids, but without actual gambling for prizes. While the graduates play casino games, prizes are awarded by chairs being randomly numbered.
Oddly enough, interest in poker has dropped, but bingo has grown in popularity.
Everything is based on the idea that every graduate who comes to the party will leave with something.
Re-evaluation of prizes is an ongoing process, but organizers learned quickly that what the kids really responded to was, as Lewis put it, "m-o-n-e-y." So anything not spent on budgeted needs has gone back into cash prizes.
The Missoula Police Protective Association has contributed officers to work the event - six each year - and a healthy amount of cash they hand to kids in envelopes.
"You walk up to kids who say, 'A policeman just gave me 25 bucks,' " said Lewis. " 'Oh, my gosh! How exciting!' It really impacts them."
The party also provides a chance for kids to learn more about accountability and responsibility.
"If you can start making responsible decisions about going there that night and saying, 'I want to make it so I can enjoy college, I want to be around so I can enjoy tomorrow … so my family can enjoy (my life) and their lives,' " Lewis said. "It's true what they say at most graduations: 'This is just a start, and tonight is a celebration of the start of your life.' "
While the party is advertised as alcohol- and drug-free, Lewis, Lind and Franz said there have been many cases when kids showed up having had some alcohol, but have been allowed in anyway.
"We're not going to turn you away," Lewis said. "We want you there. We want you to be part of it and have all these feelings."
Those kids are made aware that they must behave to stay.
Lind said the reward comes at the end of the party when kids walk up and say, " 'I knew it was going to be fun, but I had no idea it was going to be this fun.' Or you see kids embrace, realizing they might not ever see each other again."
"I do it because I want the kids to have a place to celebrate and be safe," Lind said. "And when I am burned out, I think of all the hundreds of kids. It's a milestone in their life and they deserve it."
Franz said she's stuck with the party because of Lind. But there's more.
"I think the main reason is the night of the party," she said, "and you see the kids, the excitement as they're coming in, and it all comes together. That's the part I love. It makes you think it's worthwhile."
One of the original organizers, Darlene Ask, stayed involved until she moved to Miles City in 1996.
"It just kind of grabs hold of you and you can't let go," Ask said recently. "It's something I'm really proud to have been involved in at the start."
All this week, watch the Missoulian and its Web site, Missoulian.com, for complete coverage of Graduation 2008, including graduate profiles, and stories, photos and video from Saturday's graduation ceremonies.