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A special sendoff: Moms team up to honor GRC Class of 2020

A group of Winchester moms have “gone rogue,” but in a good way.

Their goal is to make the best of a crummy situation dealt to the George Rogers Clark High School graduating class of 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Heather Penichet, a mother to three boys, including Eli, a senior at GRC, said she wanted her youngest son to have a memorable experience to end his senior year.

“I saw what my other sons got to experience as seniors,” she said. “I hated to see Eli miss out on all that.”

Because of the coronavirus, schools have been closed since March, meaning seniors missed some of those key things in their final year, including prom, senior skip day, project graduation and even the opportunity to have a traditional graduation ceremony.

After a conversation with a teacher from another county that honored their seniors with gift bags, Penichet had the idea to do something similar in Clark County.

She called Jeannie Gwynne, who also has a son in the Class of 2020.

“I thought she would talk me out of it,” Penichet said with a chuckle. “But she was all on board.”

The pair recruited a team of other Class of 2020 moms — Missy Helderman, Ashley Bordas Smith, Tawana Palmer and Jennifer Lisle — and got the go-ahead from GRC Principal David Bolen and Clark Schools Superintendent Paul Christy.

They started an online fundraiser to pay for items to put in “swag bags” to be distributed to seniors each Friday in May.

So far, the group has raised more than $15,000 in monetary donations and received about $7,500 in donations of items to give to students.

The first set of swag bags were distributed before graduation, and then seniors received gift bags from the school district the week of graduation.

Seniors received another round of swag bags May 15 in a drive-through distribution at the high school. That bag included a customized Ale-8-One bottle for the Class of 2020.

Each swag bag includes gift cards donated by restaurants such as Giovanni’s, Jimmy John’s, Arby’s, McDonald’s and Wendy’s.

Other donations have come from places such as Walmart, Lowe’s and the local Fraternal Order of Police Lodge.

Penichet said Ale-8 was the group’s largest sponsor, because it donated the commemorative bottles along with signs to be placed around town congratulating the seniors and a variety of items from its gift shop.

In addition to the swag bags, each of the 355 members of the class will win a raffle of items donated by local businesses. This week’s raffle will be held at Woody’s on Bypass Road. Other raffles have been hosted by Lowe’s, Rural King and DJ’s, which donated 10 percent of its profits from one night to the effort.

Penichet said the group has been humbled by the community’s support.

“We have had the best community support,” she said. “It’s been amazing how generous people have been with large donations. We even received another donation from someone in line today. So many of the businesses have contacted us wanting to do something special for the kids.”

And the students have been happy with the support, too.

“The kids love it,” she said. “They are extremely grateful and excited. We have received texts and messages on social media telling us how much it means to them.”

That support was evident Friday as hollers of “thanks!” rang from the hundreds of cars that funneled through the school’s parking lot.

That’s proof that the team of moms have accomplished their goal, Penichet said.

“The goal was just to do something special to make the occasion meaningful,” she said. “To let them know that we care and that we will come together to make their graduation as great as it can be.”

Penichet said the students can never get back the last part of their senior  year, but she hopes this effort softens the blow.

“We hope it does make it a little bit easier,” she said. “Because I’ve had two other kids go through graduation, I knew what Eli was missing out on. It was probably as hard on us parents as it was the kids. I just felt there was a way we could fix this and put our own stamp on it and make them feel special. The response has been far more than I anticipated.”

Those interested in helping the efforts can find more information on the group’s Facebook page, “Clark County 2020 Seniors Donations of LOVE.” The weekly raffles are also streamed on that page.

About Whitney Leggett

Whitney Leggett is managing editor of The Winchester Sun and Winchester Living magazine. To contact her, email or call 859-759-0049.

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