The Upper Keys began honoring their soon-to-be graduates with highway banners in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. FKEC donated the manpower to hang the banners and the Islamorada Chamber of Commerce allowed organizers to use their hardware to secure the banners. KEYS WEEKLY FILE PHOTO

It began as a heartfelt gesture to honor the Coral Shores High School Class of 2020. 

That year, COVID-19 had stripped the students of the long-awaited festivities marking the end of their high school years. They missed out on a prom and a graduation ceremony. 

Residents in the tight-knit community of the Upper Keys were not about to let this milestone pass without some fanfare. They put their heads together, opened their wallets and came up with a way to honor their graduates during a time when social distancing was the status quo. 

A decision was made to hang each senior’s enlarged picture on poles along the Overseas Highway throughout Islamorada. Each banner contained four photographs of proud Coral Shores High School soon-to-be graduates. Two pictures were on one side, and two on the other.

Placing the senior pictures along the highway required a true community effort. Money was donated to purchase the banners and the Islamorada Chamber of Commerce, which owned the hardware on the poles used for securing the banners, agreed to allow the use of its equipment. The Florida Keys Electric Cooperative stepped up as well, donating all of the manpower required to hang the banners.

“It was a one-time thing, then it didn’t stop,” said Judy Hull, Islamorada Chamber of Commerce executive director. “The next year they did it again, then they did it again and then other groups went ‘that’s cool, let’s put up our banners,’” added Hull.

For the next three years, the banners recognizing seniors continued to be displayed along the highway, quickly becoming a beloved tradition that now, it appears, has finally reached an end. 

Hull told the Keys Weekly the equipment used to secure the banners was over 20 years old and was failing, adding it would be too costly to repair or replace. At the end of June, the banner hardware was taken down for good.

“We certainly were not targeting the graduating students, it was just our budget. It was the right answer for us to get that down,” said Hull.

And then there was the issue of the donated FKEC manpower. 

“As labor gets harder and harder to come by, we’re taking important people away from what they ought to be doing to help us do this,” said Hull.

“On FKEC’s end, it was the issue of our volunteered manpower needed to hang and remove banners, and it has never been ideal to have hardware attached to our transmission poles,” said Nikki Dunn Cullen, FKEC spokeswoman. “FKEC takes great pride in being a proud community supporter.”

Still, the thought of not having a highway banner does not sit well with CSHS seniors like Ansley Osborne.

“I’m really bummed out that there are no banners this year. I felt like it brought the community together,” said Osborne. “I was looking forward to it, everyone was. They did it last year and last year wasn’t COVID.” 

The nonprofit group Project Graduation raises money for end-of-year recognitions and activities for CSHS seniors, including raising money to purchase the banners.

“The families and students are of course disappointed, as it has definitely become a tradition in our community,” said Suzanne Holmquist, Project Graduation chair. “But we understand all of the issues that have come along and we’re thankful for the years that they did it. We’ll still be working hard to honor our graduating seniors with other projects.”

Kellie Butler Farrell is a journalist who calls Islamorada home. Kellie spent two decades in television news and also taught journalism at Barry University in Miami and Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, UAE. She loves being outside, whether spending time on the water or zipping down the Old Highway on her electric bike, Kellie is always soaking up the island lifestyle. Kellie and her husband own an electric bike rental company, Keys Ebikes.