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A Shining Light Freeport seniors carry on school tradition

Carter Daugherty

The laughter rose into the darkening sky at Freeport Community Park on a chilly Wednesday evening almost as far as some of the sky lanterns did.

And that was the point.

To be together. Again.

To have some sense of normalcy. Again.

To feel part of a senior class. Again.

The lantern launch was largely moot.

For the 114 seniors at Freeport Area High School, the common things that typically bind them together have been fleeting since the coronavirus pandemic hit and canceled in-person classes March 13.

They went their separate ways that day, not knowing when — or if — they would ever be together as a group again.Some of them did congregate on the open soccer fields near Laube Hall, igniting lanterns that were more symbolic that literal.“It was very important to come out here,” said senior Ricky Hunter. “At least we see some of our graduation class. We're having fun. We haven't seen each other for a while. It's a chance to have a little bit of something normal.”Ricky peered around at some of his friends and classmates who had gathered, spread out across the field, and grinned.“It's way better than quarantine,” he said.About 50 of his classmates dotted the field, making sure to social distance as much as they could. They had their lanterns in hand, waiting for it to get dark enough so they could light them to partake in a tradition at Freeport that was threatened right along with just about everything else by COVID-19.About 43 more of Ricky's classmates were at other locations — other open fields or even in their backyards — waiting to release their lanterns at 9 p.m.They weren't about to let this one tradition fall victim to the pandemic.

“At least,” said senior Garret Schaffhauser, “we have this one thing.”Making a changeAmy Change often has to convince people that, yes, that's her real last name.It's kind of a fitting one. She helped change the fate of the Freeport seniors this spring.Her son, Seth, is a senior at Freeport and she wanted to help give him and his classmates something to end a year that has seen such tumult on a high note.So, she ordered the sky lanterns — enough for the entire class — at $2 apiece and found a way to distribute 93 of them for the big release Wednesday night.

She also came up with the Twitter hashtag of #jacketslightthenight to help organize the event.“I just ordered the lanterns and came up with the hashtag,” Change said. “Ashlyn (Hazlett) organized it and got the kids together.”Change, though, made sure the lanterns were safe.“I wanted to make sure they were biodegradable and wouldn't harm the environment,” she said.Ashlyn didn't want to see her senior year end in such a depressing way.She was one of many in the senior class who were dismayed that prom was canceled and that graduation would be held with students going into the Middle School gym one by one to receive their diplomas from a family member.And not together as a class.Ashlyn reached out to her friends on Twitter to see if they would be interested in keeping the sky lantern tradition alive.“I just wanted to see how many people were comfortable doing it given all the restrictions,” Ashlyn said. “I put up a poll to see who wanted to take part in it.”The results were overwhelming.“About 76 percent were interested,” she said.That was enough for Ashlyn to get moving.Parents jumped on board quickly and helped move things in the right direction.“I don't think we could have done it without them,” said senior Mackensey Jack of the parents.Many parents were on hand Wednesday, helping their sons and daughters and their friends light their lanterns and release them. They snapped pictures and were all smiles watching their children beam and laugh and joke. Again.“It's been a long time since we've seen that,” said Kristi Jack, Mackensey's mother. “It's been so hard on all of them.”

Cora Crytzer had watched her older cousins and friends take part in releasing sky lanterns in the past.It's a tradition at Freeport, another way for the senior class to bid farewell to their high school careers.But like so many things for the Freeport Class of 2020, it was threatened.The school couldn't host the event as it had in the past because of Gov. Tom Wolf's restrictions. The administration, sadly, had to inform students the lantern release could not be held as normal.“I was honestly heartbroken,” Cora said. “This was something our whole class looked forward to, and it was really sad to see it canceled.”Cora's frown turned into a smile.“But now,” she said, “it's back.”The lantern release did not go off without some hiccups.Some of the lanterns didn't fly, instead skidding and tumbling along the dewy grass. Others lodged in nearby trees before burning out, and one actually got caught in a soccer net.But that was hardly the point.“It's really special,” Cora said. “This is one of the first times I've been able to see my friends. So many things have been getting canceled and postponed, so this was a really great thing to do, to be able to come together as a class. It's really nice to feel like we're together again. I haven't seen many of them since March 13, the last day of school.”For Mackensey, it was a chance to feel normal. Again.

“I was really happy we made the plans to get all together anyway, even though the school wasn't putting it on,” she said. “I feel like it's an important thing we do every year. It's a bonding thing we all do before we graduate.“We didn't get to finish the year,” she added. “I haven't seen a lot of people here since March. It's good to get together and see everyone and talk face to face again.”While some of the lanterns were duds, others weren't.They rose into the sky, glowing orange and yellow.Some members of the Freeport Class of 2020 paused to peer up at them, following their flight, eyes wide and smiles creasing their faces.They felt very much like the lanterns they watched floating away.Released. Free. Again.“Releasing the lanterns — at least we got to do this,” Ricky said. “We've all been cooped up in isolation. We haven't seen each other. We haven't been with each other and it's (stunk). Our graduation is going to be different than usual — we're not going to be able to do that together. This is our only chance to do something together.”

Maddie Clark
Samantha Clark
Maddie Clark encourages a sky lantern to fill and float at the coordinated launch Wednesday at Freeport Community Park. Above, Carter Daugherty sends a lantern into the sky. Senior classmates from Freeport Area High School maintained a tradition by releasing the lanterns.submitted photo and mike kilroy/butler eagle
Isabella Russo lets her sky lantern fill in advance of releasing it Wednesday at Freeport Community Park.submitted photo