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Local families rethinking high school graduation celebrations

Oak Grove grad Laura Barnhart was presented with a blanket made of her old T-shirts and photos of her and her family at her graduation party in 2006. (Special to The Forum)1 / 2
Griffin Morris, middle, formerly of Fargo, hangs out in his backyard with classmates from Bishop Kelly High School in Boise, Idaho, during one of four smaller graduation events his parents hosted last spring. (Special to The Forum)2 / 2

FARGO - During Laura Barnhart's and Hannah Erickson's junior year at Fargo's Oak Grove High School, their mothers started talking about merging their graduation parties.

Going to a smaller school meant the whole school community often turned up for receptions, causing frenzied May schedules. A tandem party could lessen the stress and be fun, too, their mothers, Sue and Pam, reasoned.

The following summer, their party planning came to a halt with a tragic accident. Sue was on her way to her nursing job in Fargo and was struck by an oncoming vehicle after getting out of her car.

Sue died that evening.

Hannah still remembers getting the call at work, and running to the hospital to be with Laura. "I was with her that whole week, and even rode up with her for the burial," Hannah says. "We spent a lot of time together."

After some time and healing, Pam began to feel that moving forward with her and Sue's plans was the right thing to do. After talking with Laura's dad, Tom, they rented the Fargo Theatre downtown and began plotting the finer details.

Their reception day in spring 2006 included an organist playing the historic "Mighty Wurlitzer," along with a slideshow of the girls' school memories project on the bigscreen. Along with fondue and a lemonade fountain, Sue's famous peanut butter dessert was served by friends in her memory.

"It was a hard day that was both a blessing and a blast," Pam says. "We may not have gone to such extremes if the circumstances had been different, but those milestones are so painful and hard to get through, and it was a time to almost have her with us again."

"Ours was definitely very unique," Laura says of her and Hannah's graduation party. What she cherishes most from that day was the blanket her mother's friends had made using bits of her old T-shirts and photos of her and her family through the years. "They presented it to me at the graduation party; that was really special."

Laura says sharing her party with Hannah, to whom she'd grown especially close following her mother's death, made the day extra meaningful. And with the other mothers coming together to help, the event was very low-stress for her family.

"My dad's really good when it comes to technology," Laura notes, "but when it comes to things like food planning and flow, dads just aren't really on top of that kind of thing. So it really took a lot of the pressure off of us."

Hannah didn't mind seeing the event as more than a graduation party honoring just her.

"I think a lot of people knew when they came that it was going to be a hard day for Laura," Hannah says. "Doing it that way made it more special and intimate. It was definitely a time to see Laura and celebrate her accomplishments and also see part of Sue in her, and have that memorial for them, too."

Scaling back

When it came time to plan her daughter Sophie's graduation party last school year, Diane Kenney dreaded the thought of having another event at home like she'd helped organize for her son, John, a few years prior.

It was Sophie, along with fellow Shanley High School classmates Sadie Rivard and Nicole Carew, who came up with the idea to host their party together at a common location.

Numerous benefits emerged from the joint effort. From the girls' perspective, Diane says, it was much more enjoyable. Rather than playing the role of awkward teen hosts in their own homes, they stood together to greet guests as they arrived.

At the church where the event took place, each girl set up her own poster board with personal memories, and together, they created a separate collage displaying photos of the three of them together through the years. "It was like a walk down memory lane for all of them."

To simplify food and costs, they offered a buffet of homemade desserts that included a chocolate fountain as a centerpiece, along with punch and soft drinks.

"So it was very low key, but it was also festive - the girls loved it," Diane says. "It was so much easier than having it in our home and having to get the house ready."

Back when she graduated in 1994, she notes, receptions were small, family gatherings that included cake and a few gifts.

"It's evolved into something more, and I think in some ways it's going to change again, because you can literally spend two weekends in a row only going to parties," Diane says. "And really, there are only so many pork sandwiches you can eat."

Food costs alone can range anywhere from around $250 for sandwiches and salads from Hornbacher's to the more extravagant route of Famous Dave's, which recently sold a fully-catered spread to a local grad's family for $4,000.

Attitude of gratitude

Linda Morris approached the graduation reception of each of her three sons differently.

With their first son, Michael, in 2002, there was no question - it had to be a big gathering with lots of guests. After all, his reaching graduation was, in and of itself, a miracle.

"There was this unbelievable sense of awe that he was even making it to this milestone," Linda says. "Graduation was something we never dared think about before; our minds wouldn't even go there."

Michael was born with a rare combination of congenital heart defects, she explains, making his health tenuous and prompting numerous surgeries through the years. Currently, he's working on his doctorate at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland.

"Our first emotion was directed at all that God had done, and then after that, gratitude for this large community of friends and family who'd played an integral part in Michael's life and helped him thrive," she says.

By the time their youngest, Griffin, was up to bat in 2011, the family's circumstances had changed significantly. They'd moved from Fargo to Boise, Idaho, in 2008, and with their new location, a different kind of celebration seemed in order.

Rather than hosting a singular party, they decided to break it up into smaller, more intimate events, allowing Griffin to invite the people who meant most to him rather than having a parent-driven guest list.

The first, a post-ceremony dinner in a restaurant, involved just close family members. They also had a backyard barbecue to thank Griffin's teachers, followed by an ice-cream gathering with his friends and a campfire. The third event brought together his church mentors and youth group. Lastly, they had some neighbors and close friends over for dessert on the patio.

Costs stayed low, and it was relatively easy to pull everything together after the initial planning, Linda says, since one event drew into the next.

The gathering with teachers was especially meaningful. "We had no idea how rich that evening would become. It started out being a thank you but ended up being an experience of learning more about our son," she says. "After hearing the teachers tell stories about what Griffin was like in the halls of his school, we felt like we knew him better. It was very relaxing and there was lots of laughter."

Now, she's all for rethinking what the day should really be about.

"Too often in our society, it's all about winning or accomplishing something, and I think so often those beautiful virtues of humility and gratitude and giving of yourself are downplayed to the point they're almost overlooked," Linda says. "Our real priority should be to teach our children about giving to others. Everything else should be second to that."