For kids with special needs, enjoying an event like prom sometimes comes with obstacles. Thankfully, organizations across the country are making sure they don't miss out on the fun.
Taking inspiration from a similar event she witnessed in the Midwest, Cheryl Shields from San Diego decided to hold a prom that celebrated students with special needs, including kids with autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy. She launched A Night to Remember in 2011, and 300 people attended. This year’s event, held on May 1, was filled to capacity and brought in 850 students from 70 schools in San Diego county.
At the prom, the attendees with special needs, known as “honored guests,” got matched with high schoolers called “student hosts” for the evening. Over the years, Shields has noticed that pairing them up proves to be an incredible experience for both parties.
“The student host and honored guests are paired up on the spot after they check in at prom,” she said in an email to The Huffington Post. “They are meeting for the first time, and within two minutes they are linked arms and holding hands and off to experience a night they won’t forget.”
Each honored guest attends the event free of charge with a dress or tuxedo provided, thanks to help from the community. They also get to visit different stations where they get their hair and makeup done, ride in a limousine, walk the red carpet and more. Shields wants to ensure her guests become “rock stars for the night.”
“This experience is unforgettable to our attendees because it is a magical night -- where no one cares how they look dancing, no one is self-conscious,” she said. “It is a safe environment where students with special needs are valued.”
Joy Cameron puts on a similar event called Shine! Prom for her community in Meridian, Idaho. She threw a prom two years ago as a graduation gift for her son who has autism, and 180 people showed up. This year, she welcomed 420 guests of all ages to the luau-themed event on May 2. Like A Night to Remember, Shine! Prom takes into consideration the specific challenges of its attendees.
“Shine! Prom is designed to meet special needs by being sensory friendly, meaning that the music isn't quite as loud, there are no strobe lights or disco balls which may induce seizures, a manageable entry fee of $5 and an ADA-accessible facility,” Cameron said in an email to The Huffington Post. “There are also lots of volunteers and professionals there.”
Cameron works at A New Leaf, an agency that offers services for people affected by developmental disabilities. The company sponsored this year’s photo booth, which was booked as a special deal from Treasure Valley Photo Booth. Her church, Revive Church Boise, brought and served food, and Whole Foods provided gluten-free options. The community also pitches in every year by donating dresses and menswear for Cameron’s Shine! Boutique so the attendees can get dressed up for the big night.
“Outfitting everyone for the prom is almost as exciting and rewarding as the prom itself,” she said.
From the community coming together to the volunteers creating friendships, these proms are rewarding for more than just the attendees with special needs. Parents get to witness their children being celebrated, which is Shields’ favorite part of her event. As for Shine! Prom, Cameron can’t choose a single moment she enjoys most. She cherishes the whole experience of providing her attendees with a truly special night.
“My favorite part is the entire evening -- seeing the excited faces arrive, the giggling, the dancing for three hours straight, the hugs and the sheer joy of the moment.”
Scroll down for more photos from A Night to Remember and Shine! Prom.
A Night to Remember