Before Lenoir City High School seniors received diplomas Friday morning, many stayed after practice the day before to celebrate their achievement in a year that has been anything but normal.

The school’s Parent Teacher Student Organization would typically provide students an outlet for one last celebration through Project Graduation. Jinni Redmond, event co-chairwoman, said this year the group wasn’t allowed to offer it due to COVID-19. In its place, the group established a Panther Pride Party on the football field the day of graduation practice.

“Local businesses have generously donated all this free food, and then we’ve raised $9,000 through donations from businesses that we’re going to give away to the kids today,” Redmond said. “What we’re going to do is every five minutes we’re going to call three names and we have unmarked, sealed envelopes, and they will pick an envelope of their choice, open it and sign for the amount of money that they won.

“... We just wanted the seniors to be celebrated and a chance for them to get together one last time and talk to their fellow classmates,” she added.

Redmond said PTSO may continue the Panther Pride Party moving forward.

“(Project Graduation is) all night games and prizes and events for our graduates,” Jeanne Barker, Lenoir City director of schools, said. “Again, this year we were not able to do that. They’ve raised over $9,000, and so they are setting up to the have the graduation party actually here after practice today. So that has been a tradition, it’s a lot of work for our PTO to do that, and they work diligently throughout the year. It’s a wonderful way to honor our graduates and many of them walk away with goodie bags and prizes and money even from this event.”

Wendy Stooksbury, event co-chairwoman, said PTSO’s goal with Project Graduation has always been to offer students a “safe, fun place to celebrate their accomplishment without the need for alcohol and drugs.” She credited volunteers for making the group successful.

“Graduating is a huge milestone that is worth celebrating, no matter what kind of issues arise,” Stooksbury said in an email correspondence. “We knew we had to do things a little bit differently, but it was worth it to us, but most importantly, we had donations that were for a specific cause. Thankfully, we were able to celebrate our 2020 graduates and allocate the funds to them.”

Masyn McCoy and Taylor Masters thanked the group for celebrating with them.

“It’s nice that the parents came together and gave us a little party to put together for us,” McCoy said. “It’s really nice of them, especially now with all this going on.”

“It means a lot that they’re doing that for us, especially after the year we’ve had,” Masters added.