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Project Graduation keeps students safe

By Staff | Jul 15, 2010

The positive action heroes of our community come in many shapes and sizes, from diverse sectors of the population that reflect the rainbow culture of Lahaina. These guardian angels are policemen, firefighters, medical technicians, religious leaders, teachers, social workers, welfare administrators — the list goes on and on.

Some are more prominent in publicity than others, but all are vital to the collective health and success of every community. Standing tall, yet in the background and obscured by the shadows of media light, is one such group.

Project Graduation on Maui was the brainchild of a group led by Lorene Akiona, Mike Casicas, Ivy Huerter, John Huerter and Marcia Bungcayo. It was then, and remains to be, a nationwide effort to curb the dangers of teenage drinking and drug use on graduation night — and the traffic tragedies associated with them — by sponsoring a safe all-night party for the kids.

Casicas, a Lahaina patrol officer at the time, was alarmed by the rising number of fatal car crashes — and the deaths and injuries that came with them — involving teenagers celebrating high school graduation with alcohol and drug use, and then continuing the party on Maui’s roadways. The grim reaper on wheels.

But Casicas and Akiona saw the red light at the end of the tunnel and recruited the Huerters, Bungcayo and student representative Kalei Opunui to sell the idea to the Lahaina community. The group formed a Traffic Safety Team at Lahainaluna High School and researched leads and ideas to take action against the rising tide of teenage fatalities due to drinking and driving.

They found Project Graduation through Jan Meeker on Oahu, attended workshops put on by the organization and launched the Lahainaluna effort in the fall of 1994. The group recruited support and volunteers to promote the project while Opunui pumped up the idea to her Luna classmates.

The Lahainaluna Class of 1995 celebrated the first Project Graduation on the Valley Isle on June 4, 1995, at The Westin Maui. Of that senior class, 86 of 150 students attended the all-night, sober celebration that included dinner, dancing, games and entertainment.

“It was a wonderfully happy night — one that all of the kids that went, and all of us, will remember forever,” reminisced Akiona last week. “We got things rolling here in Lahaina, and then Saint Anthony’s started up the next year, and soon all of the Maui high schools have Project Graduation going.”

Indeed, Project Graduation has taken hold here. Lahainaluna had a successful event last month, as 95 of the 158 graduates attended the celebration that was once again held at The Westin with entertainment from Da Braddahs, Malino, and the Sounds of Addiction. The 2010 party was led by Barb Newton, Joan Warner, Lois Bermel, Liz Kiek, Susan Gilchrist, Karen Pascual, Melinda Dauenhauer, Claire Tillman, Uilani Nelson and Sharon Nohara.

“We have so many people to thank for making this year’s event,” said chairperson Newton. “My personal gratitude goes out to all of the leadership group that worked throughout the year to put the event on. And to Maui County, Title Guarantee, the LHS Foundation, the SBS Golf Tournament, Starwood Vacation Owners, TS Restaurants, The Westin and many, many more, thank you for your support for Lahainaluna’s Project Graduation.”

And thanks to you, Barb Newton and Lorene Akiona and Mike Casicas, for throwing this safety net over our children. According to Sgt. Barry Aoki of Maui Police Department’s Traffic Division, the teenage accidents and fatalities associated with drinking and driving on graduation night have all but disappeared.

“We’ve still had some traffic deaths during the summer that are associated with graduation parties, but as for graduation weekend, there have been no fatalities over the last few years,” said Sgt. Aoki.

Thus, young lives are being saved, and this is positive action at its finest. Thank you to all involved with Project Graduation.