High school graduation ceremonies aren’t guaranteed this year, so staff and administrators are scrambling to come up with special ways to celebrate their seniors.

In Aitkin, that meant a trip for high school staff members out to every senior’s house, complete with signs of well wishes, bags of goodies and plenty of school spirit.

“It meant the world to me,” Jill Blanchette, mom of an Aitkin senior, said. “It was so special that they took the time and the effort to do that for each and every kid.”

A firetruck, a police escort and about 30-40 cars of teachers and staff members greeted each of the 69 seniors at their door. Everyone socially distanced themselves in the street and front yard in front of the houses, blaring music and singing the Aitkin fight song.

Principal Paul Karelis gave each graduate a yard sign, their cap and gown, the 2019-20 yearbook and a bag of goodies with cards and candy bars from the school. The whole trip took a total of about 16 hours over four days last week.

Karelis said the idea came from English teacher Kathy Christy and was the school’s way of trying to make up at least a little bit for everything the students have lost this year.

“It was very moving,” Karelis said, noting there were a lot of tears shed. “I think the kids enjoyed it a lot. The parents enjoyed it. It was something we hadn’t done before, but it was a good thing for the graduating seniors who had lost all the opportunities since March 17.”

The lost opportunities hit the hardest for Blanchette, as a mom.

“It was heartbreaking for all of us — for many different reasons — that their last day of high school was just some random Thursday, that they didn’t get to say goodbye to anyone, and no one got to sign their yearbooks,” she said.

But both she and her son Jon were appreciative of the gesture as the caravan made its way to their house Thursday, May 7.

“It meant a lot knowing that they’re thinking about us and how we’re doing emotionally and how we’re doing in life,” Jon said. “It really shows that we have a close bond with our teachers at Aitkin.”

And all the effort put in wasn’t lost on the Blanchettes, especially with how far away some students live.

“To know that they’re willing to go around the entire county of Aitkin and go to every senior’s house and do the same thing for them for like four days in a row, it just means a lot that we can connect with our staff like that,” Jon Blanchette said.

Karelis said he probably burned a full tank of gas in his truck driving more than 300 miles to make it to each student’s house, sometimes down small, dusty, dead-end dirt roads.

“But it was worth it,” he said. “It was for the kids, and we need to support our kids as much as we possibly can in times like this.”

As a part of Aitkin’s grad blast committee, Jill said plans are in the works to have a semitrailer-sized banner made with the class’ senior picture on it to park at various businesses for the next few weeks. They also plan to make yard signs with each student’s picture and use them to line Highway 169.

“We’re trying to make it as special as we can for them,” she said.



THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa.