It was a phone call that stopped Ryan Westberry in his tracks.
An opportunity of a lifetime, as the Aiken High School band director put it.
The National Independence Day Parade search committee was looking for high schools to perform at the annual event and heard about Aiken’s history of accolades.
“There’s just a great deal of excitement that they even looked at us,” Westberry said. “We have students who work really hard and want to be here.”
The Aiken High School marching band was chosen to represent South Carolina at the parade in Washington D.C., making it the only school from the area selected.
The next four months will be filled with fundraising to support the trip and hours of practice to build a perfect performance.
“I was shocked,” said Aiken senior and drum captain Emmanuel Williams. “It almost made me think, ‘Why us?’ because it’s such a big deal.”
The roughly 70 students who make up the marching band will pile onto buses for the trip, and Westberry said the event will be a cultural experience for the students, too.
They plan to see sites such as the Lincoln Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery, Westberry said.
“Not only do we have the opportunity to represent Aiken and South Carolina, but we have a lot of students who never would have gotten to see D.C. otherwise,” he said.
The Aiken High School Band Booster Club is working with students to raise the $70,000 that is needed for the trip.
Donations and student fees have covered most of the cost, but the group is still trying to raise the remaining $20,000, said Bob Machulis, the president of the booster club.
“There’s a lot more expenses than just the cost of the students going,” he said.
The band has to pay for maintenance of equipment, uniforms and everything in between.
In recent years, Machulis said, financial support for the band program has decreased with budget cuts and it receives just $2,000 a year from the school district.
Financial pressures haven’t stopped the band from continuing its program, however.
The band consistently receives superior ratings at competitions, most recently at the Newberry College Jazz Festival, Westberry said.
Ranking is one of several identifiers used to select high schools for the national parade, said national marketing director Luke Wiscombe.
Schools are selected on competition results and recommendations.
“It’s a prestigious thing,” Wiscombe said. “It’s not a come-one, come-all, any band can march-type of thing. You have to be at a high level.”
In July, the students will march about one mile from the National Archives Building to the White House in front of about 400,000 people.
It will be different from the football games and state competitions the school is used to, but one they are well prepared for.
“We’re ready to get out there,” Williams said.