AHS Graduation 2020

Members of the Aspen High School class of 2020.

In a comeback year of sorts — and much to the credit of myriad parent volunteers, community members and school staff — Aspen seniors will go out with a bang in ways that seemed worlds away only a few months ago.

One project born out of the pandemic last year as a way to celebrate seniors — despite uncertain and less than celebratory times — was so well received that it’s back this year, and perhaps for good. That’s the Adopt-a-Senior program, started in 2020 by Aspen parent Hilary McKie, inspired by a similar initiative happening in Telluride at the time.

“Graduation is a major milestone for most kids, and with the pandemic’s impact on their senior year, we felt like doing everything we can to support them as they experience the graduation process,” Aspen parent and volunteer Alana Appleby said Friday.

While the concept is simple — “adopt” a senior and make them feel special during Senior Week, May 31 to June 4 — orchestrating such a project requires a lot of work behind the scenes. Along with Appleby, Aspen parents Silke Spang and Tanja Wojcik have spearheaded this year’s Adopt-a-Senior project.

Much of the work is done via the Facebook page, “Aspen High School 2021 Adopt A Senior.” Rather than reinventing the wheel, Spang said, the parent volunteers repurposed the page from last year, which as of Friday had 500 members.

With each senior’s permission through an “opt-in” form, the parents create a post with the student’s name, photo and a quote, whereby adopters may then claim their senior.

Spang said she started posting to the page at the beginning of May. By Friday, 102 seniors had been adopted — accounting for all eligible seniors at the time, as four had opted out and Spang is awaiting permission forms from the remaining 22.

“I just think it’s a really neat thing,” Spang said. “I mean it’s a lot of work, don’t get me wrong; I’ve spent hours on this. But I just love the whole project and think it’s so great for the seniors who have been through so much this year, and [to give them] something to look forward to.”

And not that it’s an issue, Spang said, but it’s worth noting that every senior will be spoken for.

“No one will be left behind,” she said. “Everyone will be adopted, there’s no doubt about that.”

Past gestures have included flowers, baked goods, balloons, gift cards, yard signs, handwritten letters and college-specific swag, according to the parents.

Spang noted that adopters shouldn’t feel pressure “to go overboard,” either, as the goal is simply to make a senior feel special.

She and her cohorts hope the tradition continues beyond the pandemic.

“It’s been very well received by both parents and students,” Appleby said.

Another parent- and community-driven initiative that seniors can look forward to this year is the much-loved Project Graduation tradition. Like Adopt-a-Senior, Project Graduation is also modeled off of other schools’ models and would not happen without volunteers and community support.

While the event itself is nothing short of celebratory and fun — it’s carnival themed, after all — the purpose of Project Graduation is much more serious.

The initiative started in 1980 after a group of teenagers in Oxford Hills, Maine, died tragically in drunk-driving accidents during graduation weekend, according to the CDC. The movement quickly gained traction nationally and by 1989, was founded in Aspen.

“The point of Project Graduation is to keep the kids safe after graduation,” Aspen parent Margaret Romero and event co-chair said Friday.

Romero said she realized how important the project is upon researching its origins and statistics on drunk-driving among teens. She noted that Colorado is among the worst states for teenage vehicular fatalities.

That said, the organizers’ goal is to “focus on the fun for the kids.” This year’s Project Graduation will start a little earlier than in years past, at 7 p.m., in an effort to capture more light and time spent outside. While Romero couldn’t divulge specifics because it is a surprise for the seniors, she hinted that the entire Aspen Recreation Center would be used, with parts of the facility “transformed.”

Romero credited fellow parents Nancy Pearce, Lynne Seeman and Wojcik — along with Aspen High School Principal Sarah Strassburger and the community at-large — for its support in making the event possible this year.

Erica Robbie is a contributing editor for the Aspen Daily News. She can be reached at erica@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @ericarobbie.