Special Needs Prom leaves emotional impact

For her senior project, Parker Day hosted a Special Needs Prom on May 8. Despite the obstacles that arose throughout, Day made the prom a fun night and one which no one wouldn’t forget.

Cody sits with his father as he looks through the yearbook. Immediately, he stops at the Prom spread, points to it, and looks at his dad. How do you explain to your son that he isn’t going to experience that? At a loss for words, his father avoids Cody’s question and continues to flip through the yearbook.

This moment inspired senior Parker Day to host a Special Needs Prom for her senior project.

Cody is the son of one of Day’s mother’s old college friends and has Cri du Chat syndrome, which according to Genetics Home Reference, is a genetic disorder that occurs when a chromosome is missing. Because of this, Cody cannot talk and has trouble expressing his emotions.

“My mom told me that freshman year and I knew that there was a senior project so I was like ‘I want to have an opportunity to set aside time to do that,’” Day said. According to Day, Senior Project gave her an excuse to finally undertake and incorporate the JC community into her idea.

Rather than joining with preexisting proms such as The Joy Prom or the one at Mountain Christian Church, Day wanted to start from scratch and be able to say, “I put all this work into it for [Cody].” This, of course, meant Day had to carry the responsibility entirely on her own shoulders.

She booked a date for the Prom with Coordinator of Campus Services Linda Nitchie and then started to reach out to organizations such as the Gallagher House to find people who would be interested in coming. Once she connected with the Gallagher House, they told her that they could get up to seventy kids and that it wasn’t necessary to contact more organizations.

She then reached out to local businesses asking for donations. “The whole entire process I had a lot of trouble with adults not taking me seriously because they were like ‘oh this is just a high school prom, I don’t really need to donate anything,’” Day said. “You could just kind of tell that they didn’t take me seriously in their demeanor so that was definitely a big struggle.”

Fortunately, Guidance Counselor Carol Heflin was able to get donations for corsages and boutineers from a local florist and junior Pia Scotto was able to get donations from her family restaurant, Italian Sensations. Senior project coordinator Louise Geczy also donated $50 for decorations.

Day originally planned the Prom for April 16, but because a teacher needed the gym, she had to reschedule it for May 8, which was Mother’s Day. “I think it decreased [the amount of] people [from] coming because it was a sudden date change and because it was on Mother’s Day,” Day said. Instead of having 70 people, nine or ten people were able to come.

As the Prom was creeping around the corner, the anticipation rose as Day scrambled around trying to find more people interested in coming. “Honestly, I am happy with the amount of people that came because there were so many John Carroll people there that it filled in the awkward space. It was definitely hard to get people to come,” Day said.

Prom day

It was 2:30 p.m. and no one was there yet. Although the Prom did not start until 3, no one had shown up yet for hair or makeup and there was still no food.  In the Brown Room, there were two stations set up for those who wanted to get their hair or makeup done. Many of volunteers asked the same question: are people still coming?

Day was frantically walking from the gym to the Brown Room to outside and trying not to panic too much. “I wasn’t even worried if no one came, I was more worried that if Cody came and no one else was there, he and his dad would be like ‘what’s going on’ and [it would’ve been] weird,” Day said. “Looking back on it now, I would’ve felt the same for any of them, but I was just mostly worried that they would notice that there weren’t many people there.”

Three guests showed up in dresses around 2:45 p.m. and there was a huge relief. Seniors Morgan Johnson and Taylor Sommers, along with other volunteers, rushed the guests into beauty mode and started to do hair and makeup. One of the girls, Krystal, emphasized to Sommers to make sure the dark circles under her eyes were gone because she didn’t sleep well the night before.

Seniors Joe Kyburz, Kishan Patel, and Mitchell Hopkins walked in carrying corsages and greeted their dates, who were already glowing with happiness. Everyone in the group beamed as they had a corsage put on and posed for a picture.

It was just very touching to see how happy Cody could be and it meant a lot to his dad who was very appreciative. It reminded me how little things that don’t matter to you, matter to others.”

— Senior Claire Grunewald

The dates were then escorted into the gym where there were tables, decorations, activities, and a DJ. “Adam Mrowiec made it cool with the DJ experience, [it’s] better to have a DJ rather than plugging in a phone,” Day said.

Once the guests had chosen their seats, their dates helped them fill a plate with food and sat down to enjoy dinner.  According to Patel, he brought his date her plate, talked to her about what she wanted to do in life, and just joked around with her.

“I think the dates made it so much better because they were encouraging them to get up and it wasn’t just a group, it was someone that they could cling to if they felt uncomfortable or someone they could hang on to and stay in their comfort zone with,” Day said.

She added that it created a more personal experience and gave them a new friend. “[Hopkins’] date was over sixty and I don’t think I could think of anyone more perfect to be her date. He was awesome with her and dancing around her since she had a walker,” Day said.

When Cody arrived, seniors Holly Driver and Claire Grunewald introduced themselves and put a boutonniere on him. As Grunewald started to walk away, Cody began to wave his hands for her to come back and she eagerly did so saying, “I can stay.”

Cody, along with many who attended the prom, become quickly attached to their dates. “He would not let them leave his side, he clung to them and they were encouraging him to dance,” Day said.

“It was just very touching to see how happy Cody could be and it meant a lot to his dad who was very appreciative,” Grunewald said. “It reminded me how little things that don’t matter to you, matter to others.”

According to Day, it took a little bit of time for everyone to really open up and express themselves, but once everyone did, the energy level increased. After Patel and his date got up and started to slow dance, other people joined them on the dance floor.

“In all of the pictures, [Patel] was always the most hype and he made the dance circle so much more hype than it was,” Day said. “It made them feel so much more special because everyone was cheering them on and he was leading it.”

Whether it was because of a conga line moving throughout the gym, or playing with balloons that were lying on the floor, smiling was inevitable. According to Hopkins, almost everyone was dancing, laughing, and having a good time.

During the dance, Day approached Mrowiec and told him he was welcome to dance and do anything else. “[When I told him that], he said, ‘I’m having so much fun just sitting here, seeing everyone else smile the whole time and just have fun. I really don’t want to get up,’” Day said.

Even though there were only ten guests who came, the room felt full because of the amount of JC students who attended.  “It was amazing to see all of the people come out and help Parker and see all of our dates dancing and having a genuinely amazing time,” Hopkins said.

“All the attention was on the special needs dates so everyone was kind of working together even if they didn’t know each other in order to make it special for them,” Day said. JC students who did not have a date made sure to engage with the dates and include them in conversations and dances.

[When I told him that], he said, ‘I’m having so much fun just sitting here, seeing everyone else smile the whole time and just have fun. I really don’t want to get up.’ ”

— Senior Parker Day on Adam Mrowiec

To end the Prom like all dances typically end, the dates locked arms and walked to the car before saying their final goodbyes.

The long-lasting impact

As the heart-warming photos flash across her computer screen while “I Lived” by Onerepublic plays, Day explains that multiple adults have cried when she showed them the video for her senior project, including Principal Madelyn Ball. “After I started making the video and watching all the footage again and looking at all the pictures, that’s kind of when I started thinking, ‘wow, I’m really happy with this,’” Day said.

Coming out of this experience, Day has had a much stronger appreciation for her friends and all those in the JC community “It was overwhelming how much support there was. It wasn’t just from the senior class, there was at least someone from every grade there,” Day said. “It was nice to see how supportive everyone is and it made everything so much better.”

Not only did the experience impact Day herself, but it also impacted those who attended. “It taught me not to have a predetermined view of someone because man, did they dance. Meeting people with different backgrounds, stories, and cultures always enlightens me on how the real world truly is and never to judge someone without truly knowing them,” Patel said.

Brian, who was one of the special needs dates, told Day that this was going to be his prom because he is not comfortable to go to the one at school. “A couple days after someone texted me and said that [Brian] was talking about some Prom at JC saying it was one of the best nights of his life and that made me feel really good because he was so fun and dancing the entire time,” Day said.

With every experience comes a challenging effort that you can learn from. “Everything was on my shoulders: the decorations, the DJ, and a very low budget. If I could do this again, I know where I went wrong [and] I feel like I could make it a lot better,” Day said.

As soon as the dance was over, the dates were already asking when the next one was. Because of this, she encourages any junior to do it next year for their senior project and would love to tell them where she went wrong so they could create a better experience.

In the future, Day plans on continuing to plan events for people with special needs and hopes that she can give them more experiences such as prom. “It kind of just opened my eyes that they don’t get to experience a lot of the same things we take for granted, like prom. It’s not like I can help [Cody] speak or control his emotions, but this is something I can do,” Day said.

Note: Some last names were omitted in order to respect the privacy of the families.  

Caroline Cooney is an In-Focus Editor for The Patriot and jcpatriot.com.