Special Needs Prom continues to make an impact

Junior Bella Brooke watches as over one hundred special needs guests in pressed suits and elegant dresses walk through the front doors of JC. She cannot help but smile as they speak excitedly with their caretakers, beaming from ear to ear. Brooke then ushers a few of the women to the Brown Room to have their makeup done by students, but only after they are given a bouquet of flowers and the men are given boutonnieres. This event is nothing like these guests have experienced. This is their Prom.

Senior Caroline Cooney hosted the Special Needs Prom called A Night for Our Stars on Sunday, March 26 as her Senior Project. The dance, which was held from 4-6 p.m. in the Upper Gym, included catered food from Liberatore’s, Italian Sensations, Flavor Cupcakery, and more.

According to Cooney, she planned for the event months in advance. “I’ve been thinking about it all year and made notes whenever I thought about stuff. I didn’t actually start [planning] until January, when I made a flier and started emailing main organizations like the Gallagher House and Harford Center,” she said.

Cooney’s initial inspiration for the dance came from a personal experience. “One of my neighbors has Down syndrome, so I grew up around her and learned from a young age how to deal with people with special needs,” she said.

However, the idea of hosting the event sparked from a Senior Project by Parker Day, class of ’16, when she hosted the first ever Special Needs Prom at JC. “Last year, Parker Day hosted a Prom, and she asked me to take pictures of it so she could make a video. I remember during the event when I was talking to her, I could just see people’s reactions and how much fun they were having,” Cooney said. 

According to Cooney, although only a small number of guests attended Day’s Prom, four special needs men and women returned for a second year in a row. “It was so cool to see four guests came back for a second year, so I can’t imagine how many more would come back if a student [next year] made it an annual thing,” she said.

A total of 110 special needs people, in addition to parents and caretakers, attended the Prom. With the help of Guidance Counselor and Senior Project mentor Carol Heflin, guests were given gift bags with items from the school store including lanyards, stickers, and JC cups. 

In order to have enough helping hands, Cooney reached out to the entire community, including parents, faculty, alumni, and students, for volunteers. According to Brooke, this is when she decided to make a difference for the special needs community by volunteering. “I found out [about the Prom] from Caroline’s email to the school, and at first I was a bit hesitant, but I ultimately decided that it would be a great opportunity,” she said.

After spending the night interacting with different guests, Brooke felt that the experience of a Special Needs Prom is extremely important. “It gives people a chance to mingle with those that they never would,” she said.  “It’s also a great way for disabled people to have fun.”

Other students got involved as well, including AP Studio seniors Beth Sapitowicz, Sydney Shupe, and Delaney Link who painted a canvas over a period of two days for guests to sign. On the painting were the words “A Night for Our Stars,” and it was a hit among those who attended.

Throughout the event, guests also enjoyed posing in the photobooth with props, which were donated by the Theatre Department. According to Cooney, this was one of the most memorable parts of the event due to a particular experience with one of the guests.

“There was a guy who was older who loved the [prop] hats. He pulled me into the photobooth, and we took a picture together. He kissed me on my cheek and asked me to kiss his. I wandered away, and then I was talking to [senior] William Molali, and the guy came over and pretended to act all tough in front of [Molali]. He buffed up his chest and started joking around and said ‘Who do you think you are?’ Then we danced with everyone, and it was a great time,” Cooney said.

However, according to senior Brooke Hare, dancing with the guests was her favorite moment. “I was dancing with a little girl in a wheelchair, and we were both having a good time,” she said. “After we were done, both of her parents came up to me and thanked me. They said it meant so much. I was completely overwhelmed with emotion.”

Other volunteers such as Brooke were also overwhelmed with emotion. Meeting so many different people and making guests happy throughout the night brought joy to each volunteer. “It has changed my entire view on people. It showed me that you can’t judge someone based on something as superficial as looks. I almost cried so many times at the dance, seeing how happy everyone was,” Brooke said.

Due to the amazing outcome of the Prom, Cooney has no regrets regarding her Senior Project. She felt that the dance gave everyone a chance to make a difference for those who deserve it most. “I think that something like my Special Needs Prom is very important to give to those who come to the event. Not only does it impact those who come or those who volunteer to help, but it gives parents with special needs kids something to feel like [their kids] have the same high school experience that every other kid has,” Cooney said.

Cooney also hopes that this tradition of a Special Needs Prom will continue over the years at JC. “Being behind it all made me realize how precious life is and how important it is to have a community who supports you. So many people thanked me for having this event and [told me] how much fun they had, so I can’t imagine how the special needs people felt having a night just for them. They were able to forget about their disability and experience a night just like every other high school student,” Cooney said.

Alyssa Kraus is a Copy Editor for The Patriot and jcpatriot.com.