GREENVILLE — What began with a Sunday afternoon email sent to a high school principal has resulted in a group of Greenville High School students ensuring that this weekend’s senior prom will be a little different — and more importantly, safer — for many of the teens seeking to create some life-long memories.
On Saturday around 200 GHS students will depart for the Grand Rapids Public Museum for the senior prom. For many, it will be their first and only prom experience after the coronavirus pandemic led to the cancellation of the event in 2020 and last year’s prom being modified with mask restrictions and held outdoors at the Legacy Field under a large tent.
This time around, with the Grand Rapids venue previously scheduled to be used in 2019 now available, students will put on their most beautiful of dresses and snazziest of suits, ready to dance and socialize with the thoughts of COVID-19 restrictions in the rearview mirror.
“For us, it’s a little bit about escaping the pandemic just for a second,” Greenville senior Domenic Cedillo said. “Also, I really think prom gives us a sense of community in the manner that we get to spend time with the people we care about, we get to talk to each other face to face — it’s not virtual. We are having fun and get to live in the moment. To live in the moment is such an amazing thing. It’s a memory that you only get a couple times. In this case, many of our seniors are only getting one time for prom.”
Creating a safe experience
With prom located more than 30 miles away from Greenville, a group of students came to realize that despite the best intentions to have nothing but a fun time, some aspects of this year’s event may not be as safe as desired.
As a member of the Montcalm Youth Prevention Club, a branch of the Montcalm Prevention Collaborative, Cedillo and several of his peers were left inspired after attending a Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America national leadership training event in Washington, D.C., earlier this year.
The club was created in 2017 to empower young people in Montcalm County to make good choices for their health and well-being and to develop leadership skills to facilitate positive, social change.
After listening to National Drug Control Policy Director Rahul Gupta in Washington, D.C., Cedillo said their minds were set on bringing a concept back to Greenville that would focus on the subject of Gupta’s speech — risk prevention.
The result was an idea the students emailed to High School Principal Michelle Blaszczynski proposing an experiment they designated the Safe Prom Experience.
Their proposal? To pay the price of admission to prom ($30) for any junior or senior, which would also come with the opportunity to travel with friends on a round-trip chartered bus ride from Greenville to Grand Rapids, to be concluded with the school’s Post Prom event.
Blaszczynski didn’t hesitate in responding to her students, as she set up meetings with additional administrators as well as the Education Foundation of Greenville’s Board of Trustees.
“These students, they are agents of positive change,” Blaszczynski said. “I am very, very proud of our student leaders. I just know that when we have students like this who come forward with an idea, especially from positive leaders like these students … It left me very excited.”
Following those meetings, the Safe Prom Experience grew additional legs, as students who choose to participate will start their night at Frugthaven Farm in Eureka Township with a dinner catered by the Winter Inn. Additionally, they will have their photos taken by Jamie McNinch Photography before taking a chartered bus provided by Holiday Coach Company of Grand Rapids to transport them to prom and back.
All of this will come at no cost to the 67 students who decided to sign up.
“I could not be more proud of the students who are leading this school forward,” Blaszczynski said. “I’m just really proud that they felt the school administration was approachable and receptive to their ideas. I think our students have an incredible amount of knowledge for what is right for kids, and by working together, they realize this event can be better than ever.”
Preventing substance use
For Cedillo, the Safe Prom Experience means at least 67 students will not be tempted with partaking in any alcoholic substances or drugs, compounded by having to drive to Grand Rapids, a fact he considers a win for all involved.
“The inspiration for this is we want to aim to lower the amount of substance use,” he said. “These students aren’t drinking, they aren’t vaping. These are 67 people who otherwise might be risking their lives driving to Grand Rapids.”
Fellow Club member and senior Ariah Bremby said the chance to prevent even one student from utilizing or being exposed to substances is well worth the effort.
“I have had family members who have struggled with substance abuse, so knowing you can curb that at such a young age, I think that is really important,” she said. “That’s part of the reason I wanted to join this group. I’ve really been able to see the impact of not making a difference, what that can have on someone’s life, so being able to do this now is very meaningful to me.”
Additionally, Bremby said substances such as alcohol, marijuana and especially vaping do find their way into student environments, including the high school itself, more than most might assume.
“I’ve found one (vape) in a toilet before — someone tried to flush it to get rid of it,” she said. “It gets to the point where kids don’t want to go into the bathrooms because there are crowds of people in the corner or in stalls and it just smells terrible. It’s not a pleasant environment.”
“People don’t realize it’s a problem, and that’s the first part of finding a solution, is realizing the problem,’ fellow Club member and senior Alison Skogseth added. “So I think it’s really important to realize that with this Safe Prom event, we’re not telling, we aren’t accusing other students, asking them, ‘are you going to use a vape?’ This is more about mitigating the risk of using substances entirely for one night to create a safe event for everyone.”
Additionally, Skogseth is proud that the Club’s efforts have provided a way for some students to attend prom who might not have otherwise had the financial means to do so.
“Watching a lot of names roll in who signed up, that I think might not have had the chance to go to prom if not for this, I stopped and realized, we’re doing something big,” she said. “People may not think it’s that big, but we’re giving somebody an experience they might otherwise not have had. That’s really hard to put into words … I feel us doing something this big is us leaving our legacy at GHS.”
A collaborative effort
According to MPC Co-Coordinator Amy O’Brien, the price tag for the Safe Prom Experience comes in at more than $12,000.
However, thanks to donations of event space from Frugthaven Farm, assistance from Winter Inn, Holiday Coach and a generous grant from the EFG to pay for the catered dinner, the event was able to come to fruition.
“This is a community collaboration,” she said. “The members of the club were concerned about their fellow classmates, not just the danger of drinking and driving, but the fact that the kids would be driving to Grand Rapids and back after 11 p.m. after the dance. Some of these kids have never driven in the busy Grand Rapids area, so, they were concerned, and also, they wanted to offer kids an opportunity to go to prom and to be safe. They are hoping that this free event we are putting on may allow kids that might not have been able to go, or didn’t think they could go, an opportunity to do that. For High School kids to come up with this, that’s them thinking of more than just themselves, and we’re very proud of that.”
Fellow MPC Co-Coordinator Jodie Faber said the organization was able to help bring the Safe Prom Event to fruition thanks in part to a $125,000 Federal Drug Free Communities grant it received in 2021.
“Because of COVID, we were not able to expend all of our $125,000 grant and that allowed us to carry that grant funding over to this year,” she said. “The kids, if they had time, would have been out in the streets fundraising for this. They have been so passionate about it, pursuing harm reduction in this manner. They aren’t going out there saying ‘don’t drink and drive.’ Instead of doing that, they are offering an alternative. Our kids are so resilient.”