Sober Grad Night Committee members. All photos provided by Rick Espino.

With their high school years behind them, San Benito High School graduates settled into the O’Donnell Gym on graduation day, June 2, for a night of fun at the annual Sober Grad Night.

Dating back to the 90s, when the Sober Grad Night was held at Hollister Elk’s Lodge before relocating to SBHS in the early 2000s, the free event is designed to keep kids off the road on a night when some may be drinking and driving, and keeps them away from house parties where alcohol may be served. Instead, Grad Night gives  them the opportunity to celebrate their graduation in a safe and sober environment with the friends they have made over the past four years. 

“I have worked in the fire service for 34 years and I have experienced first-hand the car crashes on graduation night, young people injured or killed while out celebrating with their friends, only with alcohol,” said Sober Grad Committee Chairman and SBHS tennis coach Rick Espino, who first became involved in 2002 when he was working for CalFire and would bring crew members to help set up and clean up after the event. He became chair of the committee when his daughter graduated in 2013. The sober grad celebration party provides a safe and sober place for the kids to have fun, be with friends, talk about their days in high school, and look forward to their future attending college, entering the military or entering the workforce.

“I retired in 2010 and started becoming more involved in the committee, so when I became the chair it was very familiar to me,” he said. “Each year, we get new parents on the committee and I noticed it would take a while to get things up and running, so after 2013 I decided to just stay on and keep trying to improve it year after year.”

Graduates are admitted into the event at 8 p.m. If they stay after 11 p.m., grads must remain at the event until 4 a.m. unless their parents give permission for them to leave. Students are issued an ID that they must keep with them at all times throughout the night. Food and beverages are provided as well as a variety of activities including raffles, contests, games, dancing and inflatable obstacle courses. 

Students are also eligible to win prizes that have been donated by the community. Students are entered into a general raffle and a grand raffle where prizes include TVs, Xboxes, Play Stations, iPads, laptops, passes to Great America and the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, Chromebooks, gift cards to local merchants, restaurants, car washes, and oil changes. Graduates also have the chance to win prizes by taking part in games that go on throughout the night.

“It is a joy to watch these graduates take part in all the games, laugh, and get crazy with friends,” Espino said. “Having this annual event is definitely a positive thing for our community. The community donations of food, drink, sweets, time and money goes to planning and organizing this event, 100 percent. The more money we bring in the more prizes we will buy to give away to our kids.” 

In total, the Sober Grad Committee was able to give away $11,746 in prizes to graduates this year.

It is estimated that 397 seniors attended the event this year out of a class of 641 — that represents 62 percent of the class. About 250 stayed until the event ended at 4 a.m. Espino estimates that between 380 to 425 graduates typically attend Sober Grad Night.

Volunteers play a big role in making sure the night runs smoothly. As many as 70 parent volunteers help throughout the event, working in shifts of 2 to 4 hours throughout the evening and early morning, beginning with setup at 4:30 p.m. on Friday and ending with clean up from 4 to 6 a.m. Saturday.

“This year, Maria Spandri, Teri Fortson, Alicia Arellano, Lyn Todino, Lupe Barajas, John Barajas, Patty Gere, Denise Quintana and Tina Chacon have all returned to help out,” Espino said. “For some, this is their fourth or fifth year with me. New to our committee this year were Christie Stoner, Priscilla and Ross Carmichael, and Phil and Stephanie Castro. The parent volunteer Sober Grad Committee members are the big reason this event is such a success. They work hard up to the event, but more importantly, they are there with me setting and making things happen all night long. Well, until 4 to 6 in the morning on Saturday.”

Putting on an event that is of no cost to students is no easy task. “My goal every year is to reach $20,000 to spend on our Sober Grad event,” said Espino.

The committee holds several fundraisers throughout the year to help fund the event, including selling premium seats for the graduation ceremony, and holding a special senior raffle and a 50/50 raffle at each graduation meeting. Through fundraising, the committee was able to raise a total of $9,632.

Donations are vital to the success of the event. Johnny’s Bar & Grill, Tiffany Ford, M&M Farms, Super Taqueria and Teknova Hollister were among the many local businesses who made donations. Local organizations and individuals including the Filipino American Community, Cattleman’s Association, Hollister Lions Club Caroline Jerde and PG&E employee Letty Saenz also made contributions.

“Every March, our committee sends out donation letters to local businesses and every year we get great support with money, donations, gift cards, gift certificates, and items to raffle off,” Espino noted. “This year, our money donations came to $5,950 compared to last year’s $3,700. And we picked up an additional grant from the Community Foundation for San Benito County and it matched our grant from the Monterey Peninsula Foundation, which has supported our event the past three years. My goal is to keep seeking funds to sponsor our event so as not to rely on fundraisers each year. Every year with new committee members it’s always a challenge to see what kind of fundraisers we may or may not do. I am always reaching out to corporations via email and websites looking for support for our event.”

Espino said he hopes to increase local business donations in the future, saying his goal is to reach $10,000.

“This year we got close to $6,000,” he said. “It is important to note that our local community of Hollister, Tres Pinos, and San Juan Bautista really do come through for our kids.”