Aynor High School graduates kick off next phase partying together

The music was pumping, and the soft drinks were flowing as Aynor High School’s class of 2014 partied into the wee hours Friday at Waccamaw Bowling Center, with their thoughts running more to pizza and prizes than drinking and driving.

“It’s just our last time to hang out with our classmates before we go our separate ways,” said Victoria Wellons.

“There’s no drama, drugs, alcohol — or cops,” said Daja Riggins. “We’re just having fun.”

Aynor was one of four Horry County high schools that held commencement ceremonies Thursday, releasing a wave of new graduates into the world and some out on the town. The majority of Aynor’s class upheld the school’s 34-year tradition — Project Graduation — opting to party together with faculty and staff in a fun, but safe, environment.

The event kicked off about 9:15 p.m. when the group headed to the theaters at Coastal Grand mall to see the movie “Blended,” said teacher Patsy Windham, who has worked with the event for 26 years and been in charge of the last five. Bowling began at 1 a.m., followed by games at Broadway Louie’s from 3-5 a.m. and breakfast at Denny’s, before heading back home.

Of 155 students who graduated this year, 123 participated, along with 20 chaperones, Windham said, and a student committee helps make the plans. Each student paid $15 for the night, and the majority of costs are offset by local sponsors that donate cash and gifts, and by faculty and staff, who take up a collection. The students get goody bags, along with free food, games and drinks at each stop, and there are drawings for cash, gift cards and prizes before they leave each venue.

“We almost always have over half the class participate,” said teacher Tamria Jamison, who has helped with Project Graduation for most of her 33-year career at Aynor High. “It’s bittersweet — they are all excited, but they’re also a little nervous about what’s ahead.”

Jamison got a hug from Caprisha Nash as she was handing out plates for pizza. Nash said she was ready to head to Morris College, where she has basketball and volleyball scholarships, but turned sentimental, telling Jamison, “You’ve just taught me so much.”

Project Graduation was started by former Aynor Principal Marion Shaw when he was a coach at the school after some students who traveled to the beach post-graduation died in an alcohol-related accident.

“I told [my students] you don’t want to get the first big step in your life and waste it,” said Shaw, who still attends the annual event.

Aynor is the only school in the Horry County school district to have such a program, although others existed at a few other schools years ago, said Shaw, who attributes the program’s longevity to the smaller-school atmosphere and staff continuity. He said the program’s first few years were located entirely at a water park, where they had cookouts and played volleyball on the beach, before it evolved into what it is today.

Many of the students attending this year already knew about Project Graduation through parents and other relatives who attended years ago. Others only learned about it once they entered senior year, but the scope of the event still took them by surprise.

“I had heard about it, but I didn’t know it would be all this,” said Shikeem Fore, as the group arrived at Broadway Louie’s. “I looked forward to it — it’s pretty cool. We get to do all these things, and they pay for it.”

Missy Lewis has worked with the program for the 17 years she has taught at Aynor High and remembers being part of the first Project Graduation when she attended the school. She said Shaw was her teacher, classes were smaller, and her class was like a family.

“They believed in us and really did not want anything to happen to us,” Lewis said. “That says a lot and is one reason I am still a part of it. As far as I’m concerned, these are my children, and for one night they can be with us, and we know that they’re safe.”