The excitement starts hours before, picking dresses and ties and painting toenails. We are fortunate enough to live in an area where our church annually hosts a prom from special needs individuals and their families and caregivers. One Sunday, years ago, a teen girl with Down Syndrome mentioned she always wanted to go to prom, but no one ever invited her. That was the mustard seed. It took root. It sprouted. It took over the hearts of hundreds of volunteers and grew into the most anticipated formal event of the special needs community in Northeast Tennessee.
It was the birth of the Joy Prom.
While the Joy Prom starts months beforehand with food organization and seating arrangements and live band confirmations and nail polish donations and formal wear fittings and online reservations and volunteer trainings, the actual night starts with a red carpet. Outside of the mega-church with the massive heart runs a red carpet and a pulsing line. The line stretches from inside the door and down the sidewalk with mountains of excited, anxious party goers, each one dolled up for a night on the town. If you took away the wheelchairs and walkers and oxygen and protective head gear, it would look like a night at a famous Hollywood club with patrons just hoping to get inside.
At Joy Prom, everyone makes it in.
After the wait, once you are second in line, and you can see excitement and balloons inside, that’s when they verify your name and the name of your escort. Then, as you become first in line, as your feet step through the door, your name echoes over the speakers, off the balloons, up from the red carpet beneath your toes. The crowds on either side of the carpet cheer and flashes pop while you make your way down the carpet like the star that you are.
Everyone is a star.
A map waits at the end of the red carpet. It holds the answers not only to where your reserved table is but to all the events the community has donated. Of course formal wear fittings are provided before the night of the event, but tiaras and shoe shines and makeovers and manicures and crosages and boutineres are available the night of, ensuring everyone is laced with glitter on their nails, their dresses, their eyes. Professional photographers have booths set up, hoping for a chance to immortalize each shining star. There are Wii games and fuse ball games and air hockey. On the other side of the church, two stunning horses, stolen straight from a fairy tale, wait to pull patrons in classic white carriages. In the auditorium, music vibrates from the stage. It drifts from the singers and the surrounding speakers, colliding with itself mid-air and raining down upon the patrons, kissing their cheeks and hair as it falls. After eating, tables and chairs are moved to the walls opening up a dance floor that’s crowded before its officially open. The dancing continues until the doors close and everyone leaves, not thinking they are special needs but knowing they are special.
It’s how God created them: special, not special needs.
For Savannah, each year Joy Prom has given her something new to enjoy. The first year Savannah wore a pink dress, pink faux pearls and her hair pinned up with a clip. Fascinated, she ran to the large white horse and carriage. When she was three, savannah went to a birthday party and rode a pony. Months later, enrolled in a magnificent north Dallas Montessori school, she again had the opportunity to ride a pony. She loved it so typically that we would pinch pennies just to take her on occassional pony rides. After moving to the Tennessee mountains, we decided to try equestrian therapy. Four years later, when her name arrived at the top of the waiting list, she had discovered a deep fear of animals, including horses. But at Joy Prom, she ran to them, fascinated with their size and beauty, basking in the slight breeze as they pulled her around the church parking lot like the princess she was meant to be.
It was her Cinderella moment.
The second year, Savannah repeated her Cinderella moment. Twice. But most impressive and memorable was taking our first ever professional family portrait. We meandered over to one of the many professional photographers who had donated their time. The goal was to have a picture taken of the kids together. Joseph was dapper in his black on black suit with purple and white tie. Savannah was beautiful in her matching black leggings and white dress with purple polka dots. The photo of the two of them was amazing. Both smiling. Both looking at the camera. Both genuinely happy. The photographer decided to look the gift horse in the mouth and insisted John and I hop in the picture. We were polite enough to obey, but shared the knowing glance that it would never happen. We were wrong. Our outfits don’t match with the kids, but its unnoticeable behind all the smiles and laughter.
The joy of our first professional family portrait.
The excitement of Savannah’s third Joy Prom started when the invitation arrived in the mail. She pointed to it repeatedly. “Prom. Prom.” A few weeks later she picked her prom dress, only to change her mind three times moments before we walked out the door. This time Savannah was escorted not only by the three of us, but by her grandmothers as well. This year’s Joy Prom held even more firsts. While Joseph had his shoes shined, Savannah took advantage of the manicure station, insisting, “Red!” By the time she arrived at the horse drawn carriages, a tiara sparkled in her hair. The girl, who hates her head touched, walked, rode and ate with a prickling, glittering crown upon her head. And then she danced. She danced with me. She danced with her grandmother. She danced with her other grandmother. She danced until her tiara fell off.
Then she danced some more.
Every year at Joy Prom, the anticipation and excitement grows. Every year, it brings new achievements. Every year, it brings more joy. Every year, there is a night that lets Savannah shine, from the tiara on her head to the glitter inside her striving to get out.
I cannot wait to see the joys of Joy Prom next year.