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A Prom for Special Kids

Centreville, Westfield students shine at special-ed gala at Waterford at Fair Oaks

On Tuesday morning, Westfield High student Jessica Dempsey didn't go to school as usual. Instead, she put on pretty eye makeup, had her hair done — complete with glitter, dressed in a black gown and went to the Daytime Prom for special-education students.

"I LOVE IT," said Dempsey, 17. "I like to dance to the music."

She was one of 26 Westfield special-ed students, ages 15-21, attending the gala event at the Waterford in Fair Oaks. Another 28 students from Centreville High also participated.

Overall, some 180 students from six schools — including Oakton, South Lakes, Fairfax and Herndon — kicked up their heels at this prom just for them. Altogether though, counting parents, teachers and 10 SGA members from each school, nearly 425 people filled the Waterford's ballroom.

Students and their peer buddies dined on pizza, chips, wraps, fresh vegetables, fruit, soda and cake. But they spent most of their time joyously dancing to music provided by a live deejay under sparkling, crystal chandeliers.

"It's fabulous," said Centreville High autism teacher Vicki Hudson. "I'm really loving watching the kids' faces; they're ecstatic. They don't have to have a date; everybody's dancing and having a great time. Even the shy ones are out there."

Waterford owner Keith Clark donated his facility free of charge, as well as the beverages and vegetables. "To rent this would probably be thousands [of dollars]," said Chris Pascarella, Herndon High Special Ed Department chair and the prom's organizer. "We'd never be able to do it on our own."

Gina Latcheran, a Westfield instructional aide, agreed. "A big thank-you to the Waterford," she said. "They opened their doors to us, and this is just spectacular."

OTHER companies also chipped in to help make the prom a success. Costco contributed the cakes, Target took prom photos and will develop the film, Herndon Florist gave corsages to each student, Hair Cuttery of Chantilly did the girls' hairdos and both Fairfax and Reston Limousine chauffered students to and from the prom in high style.

After Hours Formal Wear at the Dulles Town Center lent tuxedos to the boys, 2-Day Furniture provided money for commemorative T-shirts, Reston Shirts and Graphics put on the designs, and Everything Entertainment offered the music and deejay at a discount.

Most of all, though, the prom didn't cost the students a thing. It's the fifth year for this event, and Latcheran was one of 15 Westfield teachers there.

"I've been coming to this from the beginning," she said. "I see it as an opportunity for special-ed and regular-ed students to get together and appreciate what some of these students aren't able to do in the evening because of their disabilities."

Furthermore, said Latcheran, many special-ed students go to particular recreational programs in the summer and make friends, but then don't see them again until the next summer. "So this gives them a chance to get together again," she explained. "And it's a nice way to give them experience so they can go to their own prom at their own schools, if they choose to, and they'll feel comfortable about going. But so many of them won't go, so this is beautiful for them. Everyone has fun dancing and they all look lovely."

As songs such as "Hollaback Girl," "Hey, Ya," "American Pie" and "Feel Good Inc." blasted at full volume, students flocked to the dance floor and strutted their stuff. Proud parents and teachers snapped photos, while students gleefully sang along and even did all the arm movements to "YMCA."

Westfield special-ed teacher Katharine Zerkle said this "gives them a prom to go to on their own [where they're] not judged by anyone else. It's amazing — they really shine; their true personalities come out. And it builds their self-esteem so much."

JUST ASK Jaxson Zimmerman, 17, of Centreville High. Sporting a navy-blue blazer, light-blue shirt, patterned tie, khaki slacks and a white-carnation boutonniere, he definitely looked sharp — and he knew it. "Woo, hoo; I like the style," he said. As for the prom, said Zimmerman, "I'm enjoying it; I can dance all around."

Senior Jessica Jenkins is president of Westfield's Best Buddies club, which contains about 21 students — both regular and special-ed — who are matched up with students of the same gender. There are also associate buddies who aren't paired up, but are friends with everybody in the club.

Jenkins is paired with Jessica Dempsey, and they get together twice a month to do specific activities. "It's a one-to-one friendship with the buddy pairs," said Jenkins. "We hang out at each other's houses and go to movies. And we have group activities, such as bowling and kickball, once a month."

The Best Buddies recently did a club fund-raiser at Dinner Done in Centreville, selling meals and preparing them together. And, said Jenkins, "We just got back from a Washington Nationals baseball game, and that was great."

This is Westfield High's first year being involved in Best Buddies. So last July, Jenkins went to a four-day leadership conference at Indiana University to learn how to run a Best Buddies chapter. It's also confirmed her choice of career — special-ed teacher.

"It's been a great experience," she said. "I've made good friends and it's just been amazing."

And Dempsey's delighted to have Jenkins as her buddy. "I think it's awesome," she said. "We enjoy playing on the trampoline in my backyard, and we sing to the radio. I like love songs and the Backstreet Boys. I think having a peer buddy is nice because she's special, kind and sweet and is a role model."

Maitreyi Nagarkar, a junior, is this year's secretary of Westfield's Best Buddies Club, but next year she'll be the president. "For a long time, I wanted to do something like this, and I've really liked it," she said. "I've never gotten to interact with intellectually challenged kids outside of school before."

AUSTIN SWEEZY, 15, is her buddy and, said Nagarkar, "I've gotten to know her and we have a lot of fun together. I visited her in the hospital when she had pneumonia. We watch TV and listen to music, and she loves to dance."

Regarding the prom, said Nagarkar, "It's just so nice to see that these students can have the same experiences as any other high-school person. Everyone's so friendly and accepting, and I really like that about it."

This was Sweezy's first prom, and she wore tiny flowers in her hair and a black dress with sequins at the neckline. "It's fun; I like singing and dancing," she said. "My favorite singer is Jesse McCartney."

She, too, loves having a buddy. "I went to Maitreyi's house on Saturday," said Sweezy. "We saw a movie, 'Over the Hedge,' and we shared water and popcorn."

Centreville High's Special Ed Department chair, Carlyn Floyd, was one of 15 staff members attending from that school. "Next year, we'll start peer buddies," she said. "This is our building year."

Meanwhile, the students she brought were having a great time. "I like all the girls," said Jeremy Duston, 17. "I'm a good dancer — especially on fast dances." Hina Sehgal, 16, said the prom was good because she likes to dance. Her favorite singer is Michael Jackson and she likes the song, "You Rock My World."

As for Westfield's Leah McGraw, 17, pretty in a light-turquoise dress with lacy white sleeves, she was happy that her best friends, Amy and Miriam, were there, too. And, she added, "I like the cake — it's vanilla."