Wesley Chapel seniors celebrated their graduation on June 1 at The Grove.

As the Covid-19 pandemic took hold, the 2019-20 school year was forced to come to a premature end.

Senior year, which can be the best and sometimes most eventful year of a teenager’s life, ended with a whimper, instead of a bang.

High school sports, proms and Grad Bashes were canceled. Yearbooks were passed out through open car windows by folks wearing masks. Graduations were postponed until August. Final goodbyes among classmates would have to wait.

As the mother of a Wiregrass Ranch High senior, and the president of the Pasco County Council PTA, Denise Nicholas found it all to be a shame. So, she decided to do something.

With the help of all the PTAs across the county, a host of volunteers and the determination to give all of Pasco’ seniors a sendoff, Nicholas and a team of helpers organized a car parade for the outgoing seniors for every school in the county.

“I brought the idea to my (PTA) board and they were very excited about it,” Nicholas says. “And, we found people to help at each of the schools that do not have PTAs. The schools that do not have PTAs, we found people to help at each of those schools. We really wanted to give the same experience to every senior in the county.”

Here in Wesley Chapel, The Grove shopping center enthusiastically stepped up and offered a parade route in front of its shopping plaza after a few other sites declined.

Cypress Creek and Wiregrass Ranch high schools had their parades — which featured decorated cars and large groups of friends and family cheering along the parade route — on May 19 and 20, respectively, while Wesley Chapel High’s parade, which was delayed by rain, was held June 1.

“Obviously with the pandemic, the (way school ended) was very saddening for our students and their families,” said Monica Ilse, Ed.D., assistant superintendent for Pasco Schools. “But, Denise reached out and wanted to do something to provide some community support for the seniors, which we appreciate beyond words.”

Nicholas had no shortage of volunteers to pull off the project. Pasco County Commissioners Mike Moore and Ron Oakley agreed to introduce the seniors and serve as the parade emcees, local professional photographers Jess Montgomery and Paul Gigante took pictures, Makayla Gulash (aka DJ Night Mixer) provided the music, Troy Stevenson (of Acme On The Go multimedia) also contributed video trucks at each event, and former Tampa Bay Bucs tight end (and father to a Wiregrass Ranch sophomore) Anthony Becht also donated time and services.

Ilse said the county hopes to be able to hold traditional graduations in August at the Yuengling Center on the campus of the University of South Florida, but that will depend upon the CDC and the status of the pandemic. If they can’t be held, she thinks the car parades made a nice send off.

“I took my niece to the Wiregrass Ranch one, and she had a great time,” Ilse said. “It was a lot of fun.”

Nicholas said the smiling senior faces across the county helped end their final years on a happy note, which was her primary goal. “Bryce (her son) thought it was a great idea, but he had no idea how much he would enjoy it,” Nicholas says. “Seeing how his face lit up, to be able to drive in the parade and hear the horns and the cheering and see the signs….it was worth every second.”

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