Earlier this year, a room in Hot Springs, Arkansas, filled with guests as graduation hats hung from the ceiling, a cake displayed two names in elaborate frosting art, and gifts and cards containing well wishes piled on a side table. Wafts of an anticipated steak dinner drifted through the room.

From the outside, it seemed like a typical May graduation party, but to these seniors — kids who had had spent time in the foster care system — it became an unmatched moment. The spotlight shone on these students as the reason for celebration.

Since 2015, Vanguard University, an Assemblies of God school in Costa Mesa, California, has deployed students and staff to COMPACT Family Services, the national child welfare agency of the AG based in Hot Springs, Arkansas, to throw a graduation party for residents completing high school.

COMPACT Administrator Brian J. Page says the event has helped shape the culture of the program and inspired younger students to complete school. Each year, the Vanguard team has arrived with decorations, balloons, and funds for a special meal of the students’ choosing. Page, 50, says the experience always proves to be a resounding success that serves a higher mission: providing the students with a sense of accomplishment and of being appreciated.

“Many students in foster care don’t have people surrounding them who celebrate their victories or push them toward achieving a big success,” Page says. The statistics agree. While walking the stage for high school graduation may be an expected rite of passage for most teenagers, only 50% of children in foster care finish high school. Studies cite instability, a lack of affirmation, and trauma as frequent contributing factors. Page says events like the graduation party instill pride in students and present an incentive for younger children to stay in school and gear up for further triumphs.

Kayli Hillebrand has led Vanguard’s partnership efforts with COMPACT since 2015 in her position as associate dean of international and experiential education at the university. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced cancellation of the Vanguard outreach team’s trip to Arkansas this year, Hillebrand considered it an opportunity to “pivot and adjust.”

The team of students who had signed up to take the trip to Arkansas purchased all the supplies COMPACT needed to throw a graduation party. They prayed over the boxes and worked with the on-site ministry staff to ensure its success. Hillebrand, 37, says the project didn’t come off as originally intended, but it accomplished the mission.

“This project removed the glitter out of missions,” Hillebrand says. “The likelihood of my students ever meeting the graduates is slim. But we’re stepping into the action we can do right now and leaving the rest to the Lord.”

The pandemic has presented opportunities that allow the school to mobilize students without actually physically sending them, according to Hillebrand.

“It has helped our students understand that they don’t always have to go to fulfill what the Lord is calling them to do,” she says.

As Page recounts the response of the students to their “graduation party in a box,” he holds back tears.

“It’s all about the kids,” he says. “The ways that Vanguard has blessed our graduates over the years is absolutely incredible. They’ll never know the difference they’ve made in the lives of our students.”

Next year, Hillebrand and Page are hoping to bring Vanguard students back to the Arkansas facility for the graduation party, but they say they are willing to do whatever it takes to make it happen.

“We’re here for the long haul,” says Hillebrand. “If their needs change, so will our response. It’s just our honor to encourage and serve — no matter what that looks like.”