Minions help celebrate GRHS graduation

Photo by Daniel Jackovino
From left, Tara Arnett, Katie Renoff, Mary Pat Renois, Eileen Kelly, Kristin O’Neal and Stephen Buntrock, pitch in to make the 2024 Project Graduation come together.

The dust has settled and been swept away for now, but for the last several weeks parents of Glen Ridge High School seniors were strenuously erecting an eye-popping amusement park on the property of a Lincoln Street home for the 2024 edition of Project Graduation, a one-night spectacle ingrained in this community for 63 years.

Every Project Graduation has its theme — an ostensible image to which every piece of wood, nail, light bulb and gallon of paint is aimed with the actual result an undeniable display of parental and community pride.

The theme this year came from the 2010 animated movie titled, “Despicable Me.” Iconic to the movie are the minions, little, yellow, creatures whose high-pitched voices suggest they like to inhale helium. And there were plenty of these little cutouts popping up at the Lincoln Street site. But they are all gone now.

“One of the cool things about Project Graduation, among many other things,” said Kristin O’Neal, a coordinator of the event, “is that there’s a big sustainability element to it. We reuse the materials year after year and rely on donations from parents of students in our grade.”

On site, O’Neal takes a stab at explaining, to this newspaper, a bare-bones “Despicable Me.”

“Central to the plot line is a villian named Gru who wants to prove he’s the greatest super-villain by stealing the moon,” she said. “He needs minions which are little creatures. We’ve built a minion village. All the decor is minion.”

Incredibly, there will be a gigantic moon lassoed, from a roof, by Big Gru. on graduation night.

O’Neal points to a repurposed snack stand used in the 2023 Project Graduation whose theme was “Rio.” The stand now has a sign: “Kampai Cafe.” Kampai, she explains, is the language spoken by the minions. There is also a tent with amusements and other attractions just coming to life. But everything is hush-hush, hidden from students and only parents of seniors can visit the site.

“We’ve been working for a month with probably a core team of 10 to 12 people,” ONeal said. “Parents are doing the bulk of the construction. We were very lucky that the person overlooking the work was Stephen Buntrock. This is such a community effort with people pooling their resources and time to make it happen. It’s an all-hands-on-deck effort.”

Buntrock has a daughter, Anna, graduating in the class of 143 students.

Project Graduation covers three separate events that follow the high school commencement ceremony. There is the dinner/dance at the Glen Ridge Country Club, then the amusements site followed by a pool party and breakfast. After this, seniors usually go to Eagle Rock for the sunrise. The graduates must come to each event on time or they cannot continue with Project Graduation. The night is meant to be drug- and alcohol-free. That is why punctuality is demanded.

“I worked on Project Graduation in 2022 and the kids understand the purpose of the evening and abide by it,” O’Neal said. “That’s been my experience and the kids do it. It’s the last time they’ll all be together. It’s a special night and the culmination of all their hard work.”

In addition to O’Neal, whose son, Dylan, is graduating, the other co-chairs were Tara Arnett (son, Aiden) and Katie Renoff (daughter, Emily).

“Tara is the brains behind all of us,” O’Neal said. “She’s so incredibly talented and organized and thinking of details we’ve overlooked. The three of us work pretty well together.”

She credits Mary Pat Renois (son, Frankie), Eileen Kelly (son, David) and Buntrock.

“They were the visionaries, the brains and muscle behind this,” she added.

The cost of the 2024 Project Graduation was about $40,000. The event was funded by parents, fundraisers, donations and community organizations.

Photo by Daniel Jackovino
Construction on the scenery for the Glen Ridge High School graduation party.