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Albany students celebrate graduations in style
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Albany students celebrate graduations in style

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For the second consecutive year, restrictions on indoor gatherings — particularly in school-sponsored spaces — meant Albany high schools couldn't have traditional proms or all-night parties.

So instead, students and parents from South Albany and West Albany high schools invented their own independent celebrations, each complete with food, pictures, dancing, activities and prizes.

Hundreds of graduates from both schools turned out for the separate events, held Wednesday at Monteith Riverpark for South Albany and on Sunday throughout downtown Albany for West Albany.

"This is really fun for the circumstances we were given," said West graduate Samuel White, who strolled downtown Albany on Sunday in a black tux. "Obviously, we didn't think we were going to have a prom, so it was nice that we were able to have this event."

"A lot of work went into it," said Ella Galvan, president of the South Albany senior class, who came up with the idea of "Downtown Dinner" at Monteith. "The help from the senior all-night moms was the real push to the finish line."

Galvan organized South's event with the help of the Vice President Cheyenne Freeman, Secretary Cassidy Johnston, Treasurer Mason Stocking and classmates Elise Peter, Carmeron Henning and Sam Rubesh.

The idea started with a desire to have a dance, she said.

"I think most people deserve a prom. It's like a regular high school experience," Galvan said.

"Dances are a huge thing at South Albany," she added. "With the year that we've had, not even being able to go to high school ... dances are something we go to in high school, and I wanted to do that."

Galvan started thinking about how she could put on an event at the beginning of her senior year, but at that point, pretty much everything was still on pandemic lockdown.

That changed, she said, after classmates Stocking and Rena Howard — who are on their way to West Point and Yale this fall, respectively — got personal calls from Mayor Alex Johnson II to congratulate them.

"He said if you ever need anything, call," Galvan said. "Rena called, and said, 'We're trying to plan this thing, what do you feel about it?'"

The phone call led to a meeting to discuss downtown options. Johnson expressed his support and gave the students some other potential contacts.

"Once we told him what we thought was a crazy idea and he loved it, that's when I thought, 'Really, this could happen and become a thing,'" Galvan said.

That's the way it happened, Johnson agreed, but he added that credit goes to the students and organizers for anything that went well. "I just connected them with the right people," he said.

South called first, and then West, he said. He linked both with Lise Grato at the Albany Downtown Association and told them about other potential supporters, including service clubs such as the Kiwanis and Optimists clubs.

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"They ran with it and got it done," he said.

At Monteith last week, parents of senior students helped organize and run the event logistics so Galvan could enjoy her night out.

"So many parents reached out to me and said, 'Hey, I heard about this thing I want to help,'" she said.

One $10 token allowed a student access to dinner from Grindz Food Truck or Casetta di Pasta and a Kona Ice. Activities included photos, henna painting, a hypnotist, a raffle and dancing in the gazebo.

Most guests dressed to the nines for the occasion. "People went all out like it was a normal prom," Galvan said.

West students also came out in their finest. Trenton Crow chose a blazing orange tuxedo, complete with top hat and cane, and talked classmate Eli Podrabsky into choosing a powder blue ensemble so the two of them could riff on the Jim Carrey comedy "Dumb and Dumber."

Andrew Liles chose a more traditionally-colored ensemble, and said getting dressed up was part of the fun.

"For me, at least, this was for the prom we didn't get," he said. "We didn't last year, either."

More than 200 West Albany graduates came to Downtown Senior Night, organized by the "prom moms" — members of what would have been the group that takes on the all-night graduation party.

For a $25 ticket, students could take part in dancing, photos, a scavenger trivia hunt, a paper airplane competition, a movie at The Venetian and rides on the downtown carousel.

Sybaris contributed strawberry shortcake and Margin Coffee stayed open for drinks and blackjack. Students could choose from dinners at Loafers, Toki Teriyaki, Gamberetti's or Homegrown Oregon Foods.

Heather Carmichael, the head of the parent committee, said parents had hoped to have an all-night party at the Mid-Willamette Family YMCA. But in April, gathering restrictions were still too tight.

The next thought was to have a senior picnic to make sure everyone could gather outside. But students had said they really wanted a prom, so parents worked to combine the two ideas. The Albany Downtown Association stepped up to help and everything fell into place.

"We had tons of donations," Carmichael said. "Businesses in town made donations to make this possible."

Parents did, too, said Mary Harer, another of the parent organizers. When the weather shifted this week and brought in drenching rains, she said, "We rented popups. We put out an APB (all points bulletin) to all the parents. The parents came through, big time."

Organizers of both events said they didn't get any pushback or complaints from people concerned about large-scale gatherings before the pandemic officially ends. Galvan said everyone she talked with was supportive, and West Albany's "prom moms" said they took care to stay outside as much as possible and observe all occupancy restrictions.

Grato, executive director of the Albany Downtown Association, said she hopes one of the benefits of both events will be that Albany teens know more about the restaurants and activities the downtown can provide.

"They've really been enjoying a taste of downtown, and we're so happy to have them here," she said.

Fellow "prom mom" Liz Craig said she hopes things are closer to normal for the class of 2022, but added, "I think we should do something like this next year. I hope even the other high schools will do it."

Galvan, who moves to Connecticut later this summer to study forensic science at the University of New Haven, said she wouldn't want to plan big events as a vocation, but would like to repeat the experience someday.

"I'm hoping to convince my new college to do something like that over there," she said.

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