For most high school students, attending the prom is a tradition and a rite of passage that allows for simultaneous re ection and anticipation as prom-goers’ budding sentimentality about their childhoods blends with excitement about their future beyond high school. Prom can serve as the bridge between students’ past and future selves that provides a glimpse into the diverging paths they and their peers will soon take.
But for students with special needs, attending the prom can seem unattain- able, an activity made exceedingly di cult, if not impossible, because of these students’ unique needs. Whether a student’s disability requires the assistance of a nurse or aide, who would typically be unable to work an evening event, or for those who require assisted mobility devices that certain venues cannot accommodate, or those for whom loud noises and strobe lights provoke sensory issues, attending the prom can pose insurmountable challenges.
Plus, considering the fact that many special education programs for students with multiple disabilities typically retain their students until they reach age 21, thereby negating traditional grade level assignments, additional questions arise regarding which prom – junior or senior – would be appropriate for students to attend.
This was the question that plagued the teachers of Point Pleasant Borough High School’s Life Skills Program for Students with Multiple Disabilities, who, for years, struggled with how they could bring the prom experience to the students in their program. “The prom is such an important experience in the life of a high school student,” said Ms. Anne Gearing, who along with Phyllis Thomson serves as the Life Skills Program’s teachers. “Mrs. Thomson and I wanted our students to have that experience, so we began having discussions about which prom event might be best for them to attend. We knew that, although our students have every opportunity to attend either the junior prom or the senior ball, they might not be as comfort- able in a larger, and potentially unfamiliar crowd.”
But the seed was planted, and while both teachers agreed that although the existing prom events might not be the best t for their students, there was no reason that they couldn’t create a new event. And thus, the concept for the Spring Prom, a prom designed speci cally for students with special needs, was born. Deciding to have the prom was the easy part - where to host it, what to do about volunteers and how to pay for it – proved somewhat more challenging. For a traditional prom, students from the respective grade level, typically purchase prom bids or tickets at a pre-determined price, to spread the event’s cost among a large pool of attendees. With an anticipated guestlist consisting of six students, funding the prom through traditional means would have been impossible. Never ones to back down from a challenge, however, Mrs. Thomson and Ms. Gearing, with the full, enthusiastic support of both high school and district administration, got to work, pounding the pavement in search of donations and planning fundraisers, all to make their students’ dreams of attending a prom, a reality.
And their combined efforts paid off , raising enough money for the First Annual Spring Prom in 2013. “All six students from the Life Skills Program along with 23 student volunteers attended the inaugural Spring Prom,” said Mrs. Thomson. “Our students had a wonderful time at their rst ever prom, and it was awesome to be able to experience it with them. We knew that, going forward, we wanted to make the prom bigger and better.” A feat they achieved with the Second Annual Spring Prom held at the Spring Lake Manor in 2014 and with every Prom since then. Now, the Spring Prom attracts double the number of special needs students and double the amount of student volunteers!
“Based on the success of that rst event, we decided to invite some additional students, who, although they are not in the Life Skills class, do have special needs,” said Mrs. Thomson, explaining that they expanded the guest list to include special education students from the high school’s resource centers.
And as for the student volun- teers? Mrs. Thomson and Ms. Gearing had to begin turning volunteers away as their numbers swelled to nearly 50, a mix of students from the high school’s student ambassador program and the key club as well as a number of students from Technology Teacher Nick Gattuso’s Software Engineering class, the same students who work with the Life Skills students to develop the Panther Assisted Learning Software or PALS applications. Though they receive almost double the applications, student volunteers are now capped at 45.
On May 5, the group of students – the special needs students with their non-disabled peers – joined together at Spring Lake Manor to dance the night away at the Cinco de Mayo-themed Fifth Annual Spring Prom. The guests danced for approximately three hours straight to tunes courtesy of DJ Alex Bromley as the evening’s paparazzo, high school math teacher and part-time photographer Gerard Marrone, who volunteered his photography services, snapped their photos. After reluctantly taking a break from the dance floor, the students, seated side-by-side at fancy clothed tables decorated with festive piñatas and colorful balloons, dined on a catered bu et that included everything from chicken nuggets and French fries to tacos and nachos while the other guests, including the teachers and paraprofessionals who work with the special needs students each day, members of the district’s Child Study Team and Superintendent of Schools Vincent S. Smith looked on at an unforgettable evening that would not have been possible if not for the hard work and dedication of Mrs. Thomson and Ms. Gearing. And work hard they did! Amid the ever-growing interest in the Spring Prom, Mrs. Thomson and Ms. Gearing have had to begin planning the event earlier and earlier in the school year. “To fund the prom, Phyllis [Thomson] and I hold a massive gift auction each winter that’s sponsored by the Point Pleasant Elks,” said Ms. Gearing.
Though the Spring Prom may be smaller than traditional high school proms, it’s not lacking in any authentic prom detail. The funds raised during the gift auction fundraiser cover the cost of the venue rental, catering, and favors. Local professionals donate DJ, photography and other services. The Life Skills students also lend a hand to help coordinate elements of the prom putting the vocational skills they’ve learned to use to create decorative elements and other spe- cial touches for the prom, like custom napkins emblazoned with the event name and date that they made with their classroom embossing machine.
A photo booth, complete with Cinco de Mayo-themed props including giant sombreros and Dia de Muertos masks, was donated by the owner of Point Pleasant’s Compass Chiropractic on Bridge Avenue, Dr. Brian O’Mullan and his wife Claudia. After donating a gift basket to the 2016 Spring Prom Gift Auction, Dr. and Mrs. O’Mullan, who attended this year’s prom, wanted to provide some- thing special for the students, opting to donate the photo booth rental.
“We had recently attended a number of weddings that had photo booths set up at the reception,” said Mrs. O’Mullan, an Occupational Therapist for the Matawan-Aberdeen Regional School District. “They’re such a fun addition to any party and help make the night more memorable. We thought it would be a great way to contribute to the prom and the kids.”
“It’s just a small token but it really feels great to see the kids using and enjoying it,” said Dr. O’Mullan. “We’re so happy to support this event and thrilled to have been invited to share this night with the students. It’s truly a special event.” From the local businesses and organizations that donate in-kind goods and services to the general education student volunteers, adult volunteers and school and district administration and sta , the support the Spring Prom receives is an extraordinary example of the community-based educational approach that is the foundation of the Like Skills program.
“From the ball gowns to the music, to the excellent food and good times with friends, this, by all accounts, looked like the typical prom,” said Mrs. Thomson. “But nothing could have been further from the truth, while I’m sure those proms are great, this event was just extraordinary and demonstrated the spirit of inclusion and acceptance that permeates Point Pleasant Borough High School. I’m so grateful to everyone who helped make this evening possible and for giving our students an unforgettable experience.”
For the general education student volunteers, the experience was as, if not more, meaningful. Year-after-year the volunteers state that they enjoyed the Spring Prom more than their own proms, citing the opportunity to help their fellow students, coupled with the general fun and stress-free atmosphere as the primary reasons. Supervisor of Pupil Personnel Services Rita Miller said the credit for the students’ universal enjoyment of the Spring Prom is reserved largely for Mrs. Thomson and Ms. Gearing, explaining, “This event has truly been a labor of love for Phyllis Thomson and Anne Gearing. They were determined to give their students the opportunity to experience a prom, in a safe and caring environment, and they did everything in their power to accomplish that and I applaud their e orts.” “Although, I know I speak for both Mrs. Thomson and Ms. Gearing as well as for anyone who attended the Spring Prom, that the best, and most rewarding thanks was the smiles and laughter of the special needs students,” added Ms. Miller. “To watch our special needs students, some of whom have physical disabilities, dance in the middle of a circle, bordered by their non-disabled peers, who were cheering them on every step of the way and who were there for them, lending a hand or two whenever the need arose, made this experience, for me, one of the most profoundly gratifying moments of my professional life.”