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At last week’s prom, the students attending ate pizza, visited with friends, danced and sang along with the music. But this wasn’t just any prom — it was the Day Prom for special-education students with intellectual disabilities.
Yet it came with all the bells and whistles, fun and excitement of proms everywhere. And the 250-some students from 11 schools at the Thursday, May 12, event at The Waterford in Fair Oaks had a wonderful time.
“It’s a great place where they can just be themselves,” said Chantilly High special-ed teacher Patti Caplan. “It’s a joyful event.”
Chantilly had seven students there, Westfield High, 21, and Centreville High, 24, including four regular-education students in the Best Buddies Club. Westfield instructional assistant Sara Hall said the prom lets the students “interact with other people, and in a different environment.”
“It gives our children a chance to experience a prom like other students do,” said Westfield instructional assistant Brigitte Schultz, sitting next to student Tommy Nash, wheelchair-bound but smiling. “And the kids get so much joy out of the prospect of dressing up and getting their hair and makeup done, that they might not otherwise have been able to experience.”
“They’re loving it; they’re all out there dancing,” said Westfield special-ed department chair Melissa Gordon, pointing toward the dance floor. She said the students were also enjoying the pizza, sandwich wraps, cheese, fruit, vegetables and chocolate cake. And, she added, “The cotton candy, this year, was a big hit.” Most of all, though, said Gordon, “This gives them the chance to be just like any other teenagers. The social piece is important for them, and they get to just let loose and enjoy themselves.”
Caplan said Chantilly’s special-ed students “either weren’t invited to the regular prom or didn’t have someone there with them to help them navigate it. But they prepare for the Day Prom. We start early in the year in our Life Skills classes, discussing formal and semi-formal etiquette and dress. We also show them how to navigate a buffet line politely, how to make small talk and how to have good manners.”
The students are also shown photos and videos of the Day Prom, and their teachers discuss the event with their parents. “And this year, Reston Limousine donated its time and a limousine with a wheelchair lift for us,” said Caplan. “It was super fun. The driver put on the radio, and the kids were singing, the whole time. We wished we had a longer drive. And except for eating, they’ve been on the dance floor here, the whole time.”
Linda Lee, a speech/language pathologist at Chantilly, said this prom is “a wonderful opportunity for the students to get to learn how to use their social skills” outside of the classroom. “This also gives them a chance to reunite with students they know from other schools and with former classmates who’ve gone on to other schools,” said Lee. “They also get to see friends they know from church, Special Olympics, Challenger Baseball and other activities.”
Noting that the Day Prom’s theme was “A Day to Remember,” she said it really will be for the students, “as they look at their photos and reflect back on all the fun they had.”
Chantilly junior Jeffery Creighton called his first prom fun and said he liked the cake and enjoyed dancing. He likes music, especially Bon Jovi. “The prom is excellent,” said classmate Adithya Mathuria. “I like everything about it and I also love the chandeliers.”
Another classmate, Obida Khawatmi, said his favorite singer is Jason Derulo and he, too, was having fun dancing. He also liked eating the pizza and cotton candy. As for classmate Shantell Martin, she said, “It’s fun visiting with friends. And I like the food and the music; Ariana Grande is my favorite singer.”
Special-ed teaches Kathleen McGuire and Tommy Lamb co-sponsor Centreville High’s Best Buddies Club, which promotes friendships between regular-ed students and those with intellectual disabilities. “The Day Prom is the highlight of the year for all these kids and their teachers,” said McGuire. “Coach Lamb works on the dances with them; this year, he taught them the Whip, the Nae Nae, the Wobble and the Quan.”
Meanwhile, McGuire worked with the Best Buddies offers and peer helpers, coordinating who’d come to the prom. She said one of the high points of everyone’s high-school career is prom, and “this gives the [special-ed] students the chance to meet students from other schools and dance and just have a blast.”
“What’s awesome is that, oftentimes, the students get a chance to reconnect with kids from middle school, elementary school or summer programs they’ve been to,” said McGuire. “And at the same time, it’s great for the teachers to reconnect with students they taught before and haven’t seen in a while. It’s incredibly rewarding for the teachers to see how much the kids have grown and matured. You see their futures and possibilities for tomorrow, and what great people they’re becoming.”
Centreville junior Sam Rowan, current Best Buddies Club secretary, joined the group when she was a freshman. “I worked with special-ed kids when I was in the Peer Helping Program at Liberty Middle School,” she said. “I helped the kids in their classrooms and wanted to do it again.”
This year, said Rowan, Centreville’s Best Buddies did a friendship walk, went to a school football game together, went bowling and held a Valentine’s Day dance. Then came a Bring Your Own Buddy rave in March and fun on a miniature golf course in April.
McGuire noted that the Elizabeth Ann Healy Foundation — established in honor of a Clifton teen who died of cancer in 2009 — has been a “huge supporter” of Centreville’s Best Buddies for the past two years. “They gave us donations funding the trips and activities we’ve done all year long,” said McGuire. “And because of their support and generosity, we’re one of the most active chapters in the Best Buddies Capital Region.”
At the Day Prom, Centreville sophomore Jayde McMillan said she was enjoying “the music and dancing and doing the Cupid Shuffle. And it’s fun eating pizza and meeting new friends.”
Agreeing, classmate Jack Erickson said, “I like the wrap sandwiches and hanging out with everyone. I also like dancing and Michael Jackson.”
Happy with the way things were going, Rowan said, “There’s energy everywhere. The kids see people dancing and they want to dance, too. And I like how everybody knows everybody and treats everyone the same. People don’t see the disabilities — they just see each other as people.”