Monday, October 15, 2018

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Program donates graduation caps and gowns to ensure students don’t have to skip ceremonies

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    Pa Thao, executive director of the Eau Claire Area Hmong Mutual Assistance Association, displays donated graduation garb Tuesday that the agency is giving away as part of its Cap and Gown Recycling Project. View more photos at

    Staff photo by Dan Reiland
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Walking across the stage with classmates at commencement is a rite of passage for many graduating seniors. 

But some students never experience that proud moment simply because they can’t afford the graduation cap and gown worn by fellow members of their graduating class. 

Upon learning that the $42 price tag for the basic cap and gown package was a barrier prompting some low-income students to skip commencement, the Eau Claire Area Hmong Mutual Assistance Association launched a program last year to collect donated caps and gowns in local school colors.

“We have students and families we know that aren’t able to attend graduation because they don’t have the financial means available to pay for a cap and gown,” said Pa Thao, executive director of the HMAA. “We did a donation drive so students who want to attend can have the proper attire to do so.”

The Cap and Gown Recycling Project has collected several gowns in various school colors — light blue for North High School, purple for Memorial High School and black for UW-Eau Claire — that are available to any students regardless of ethnicity or income. HMAA officials are eager to give them out in the program’s second year, Thao said. 

The agency, which distributed the last of its donated light blue gowns on Tuesday, is still collecting graduation garb in all colors. The HMAA also is seeking monetary donations to support dry cleaning gowns and buying yearly tassels.

Noting that pride often makes young people hesitant to accept handouts, Thao emphasized the HMAA doesn’t ask questions of potential recipients. 

“If you take it, we know you need it, and that’s all that matters,” she said.

Recipients are welcome to keep the garments or return the favor and recycle them for use by future graduates.

Janelle Patenaude, partnership coordinator at North, said her list of students who need help acquiring caps and gowns is substantially larger than last year. She receives referrals from counselors and also has had a few students approach her on their own about the affordability challenge posed by the commencement ceremony.

While Patenaude is thankful for the HMAA recycling project, she said North also is able to meet some of the need through caps and gowns collected by the newly created Husky WearHouse project that offers donated spirit wear to students who otherwise couldn’t afford it. 

“Graduation is a major accomplishment,” Patenaude said, “and we want all kids to be able to celebrate that achievement and walk with their peers.”

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