reposted from a story by Nicole Dungca, The Oregonian By Nicole Dungca, The Oregonian
Joann Guenther could hardly sleep this week — she was too busy thinking about her first prom.
Guenther’s mother, Laura Cross, had helped her prepare for weeks. By Wednesday night, the Multnomah Education Service District student had the sequined pink dress, the new shoes, the freshly highlighted hair.
For most high schoolers, prom is an inevitable milestone. But for special education students like Guenther, who needs a wheelchair, that’s not always the case.
Just last week, a Lake Oswego High School student in a wheelchair couldn’t attend his prom because the venue couldn’t accommodate him. Some special needs students can’t get access to a nurse or aide for a night event. Others may get too overwhelmed by the crowds and the lights.
Such issues led Brett Bigham, a Multnomah Education Service District teacher, to start a prom catering to students with special needs. To families like Guenther’s, the event provides an opportunity some never thought they would see.
This year’s prom attracted about 80 students with nearly 100 educators, nurses and family members filling the room beside them. Many were from the Multnomah Education Service District’s special education programs, and David Douglas High School and others sent contingents.
As Lonny Guenther pushed his 20-year-old daughter’s wheelchair into Gresham’s Skate World for the big event Thursday morning, he was amazed at the balloons, streamers and music. Joann, who graduated from Centennial High School and is now in the service district’s program for older students, took off for the skating rink that doubled as a dance floor and rarely left for the entire two-hour event.
Decked out in her satin dress with a matching mesh scarf, Joann waved her arms to Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” as Lonny moved her wheelchair back and forth. Before long, a friend from class jumped in front of Joann and swayed to the beat.
“She just loves music,” said Lonny.
The day can be emotional for parents like Abby Doyle, who watched as her 16-year-old son, Matthew, momentarily stood up from his wheelchair to dance with help from Multnomah Education Service District employee Tiffany Lenocker.
Doyle choked up as she talked about walking into the building and seeing the students in their formalwear. “They’re just able to let go and be free,” she said.
Becky Crowder said the event is a safe place for students like her 21-year-old daughter, Kady. “They’re all accepted in this room,” said Becky Crowder. “We all want our kids to be accepted, and sometimes the most acceptance comes from this community.”
Sabrina Anderson, a 20-year-old in the Multnomah Education Service District’s program, said there’s no threat of judging and bullying — students are able to dance wildly and jump around without feeling embarrassed. “It’s the perfect prom,” she said.
Under the retro skating rink’s disco ball, families, general education students from Barlow High School, educators and nurses joined the special education students to dance to Justin Bieber, Naughty by Nature and Lady GaGa. Nearby, sugar-free and gluten-free cookies were available for those with dietary restrictions, and organizers used non-latex balloons to avoid any allergens. Every student was given a corsage, which Bigham had been making during his free time for weeks.
Bigham, who teaches a life skills class for older special needs students at the former South Powellhurst Elementary building, started the event five years ago. For years, he had watched some of his students avoid events or venues because it would be too difficult to join. He once took a class to a petting zoo, only to find out the barn couldn’t accommodate students in wheelchairs.
The first prom was held in a school gym and attracted just over 25 students. Each year, as he invited more schools to join, the number continued to grow. More than 100 students came to Skate World for last year’s prom.
Bigham says he continues to be overwhelmed by the kindness of the event’s supporters. Abby’s Closet, the West Linn-based non-profit that gives prom dresses to high schoolers, opened their doors early to accommodate Guenther and other students.
The event costs participants $4 to help cover the admission to Skate World, but Bigham also draws upon a $5,000 community service grant he won in 2010 from Bank of America.
When the DJ started winding down the event with The Village People’s “YMCA,” Joann Guenther hadn’t tired of dancing — or smiling. “It was everything she wanted,” her mother said, as she snapped pictures of Joann and her classmates.
Watching the dance floor, Bigham was pleased with the way it all turned out. When he sees all the smiles, he said, he remembers why he puts so much effort into the prom.
“It’s so simple,” said Bigham. “It’s just throwing a party.”