Moving to the universally popular music of today’s youth, the teenagers danced together, a few couples, but mainly in loose groups of friends, girls wearing heels and make-up, guys in their formal slacks, shirts and ties.
Friends recognized other friends, hugged or slapped hands and posed for the obligatory selfie with a few or many framed together.
A backdrop with the “Night in Havana” theme served for casual photos to remember the night. A limo parked out front served as a fancier backdrop. An impressive array of snacks, a fired-up DJ and at the end, the crowning of king and queen made the event what it was — a high school prom.
There was something different about the Angel Prom and yet, purposely, familiar at the same time.
Parents of children with special needs speak a distinctive language and form a tight camaraderie that many find necessary in the deeply difficult and rewarding journey of raising a child who develops differently.
The tension lies in the determination to make life as normal as possible, to give son or daughter all the experiences of any child, while recognizing the need for an extra level of safety and security.
At Shoemaker High School, Student Activities Director Dawn Richardson is quick to point out that all students are welcome to the prom. She has touching stories of parents hesitating to let their child go and finding out that the other students embraced the child with open arms.
But, Letha Reeves, a Special Olympics coach in Killeen ISD and employee of the Army Youth Program in Your Neighborhood that provides services to youth through Army resources, reminds Richardson that some students, and probably more so, their parents, need something extra.
The Angel Prom, a first of its kind in this community, brought together 80 high school students representing all four Killeen ISD high schools and Central Texas College in a prom that Reeves said was a dream come true.
“These kids get a chance to dress up and have prom with their own peers,” she said May 12, while greeting and hugging parents, students and educators arriving for the event at the Shoemaker High School cafeteria.
“My sister had special needs and has never been to a prom,” Reeves said.
“It’s an environment a lot of parents want,” Richardson pointed out, noting that the smaller group of students familiar with one another made for a more controlled environment and allowed for parents to participate. “I’m honored to get to do it,” she said.
When Reeves set out to organize the special night, she found a community willing to help. Businesses and organizations donated formal clothes, the DJ, photography, flowers, backdrops, food and tons more. “The community came through,” said Reeves.
One of the heroes, Malia Laborte, a friend of Reeves’, took on the work of designing the event with decorations and accents that took months to plan and assemble by hand.
“Just to see the smiles on their faces, the excitement they know this is for them makes it worthwhile,” she said. “It’s the best prom I’ve ever been to – everyone is dancing and having fun.”
Ashanti Shinn seemed representative of the parents at the event. She stayed mostly in the shadows, but was easily accessible to her son Xavier Page and his longtime friend Carmelita Fernandez, both Ellison seniors.
“It’s awesome that (Reeves) spoke up for them and got this done,” she said. “They are showing school spirit and are part of the school like everyone else. They feel comfortable with their peers. They have no worries.”
Xavier Page is confined to a wheelchair and is non-verbal, but he had no trouble, with his friend Fernandez’s help to take part in the event. “It’s a night they will never forget,” the happy mother said.
Another parent, Jocelyn Blanks, watched her daughter Trinitee McCarty, a Killeen High School freshman, enjoy the dancing. “I think it’s really good,” Blanks said. “they are overjoyed.”
Like other parents, she said her desire was for her daughter to enjoy all the fun of a prom with her close-knit peers from other schools in a controlled environment that was easy for parents to attend.
“She loves music,” Blanks said of her daughter. “She has been looking forward to it. It’s also good for parents to see they are not alone. They can share this together.”
Near the end, the big moment came and through random drawing, Ellison sophomore E.J. Perez and Killeen senior Sarah Roberts received their Havana style tropical king and queen crowns.
“This is beautiful,” said Laydia Perez, mother of the prom king. “This is something they deserve — to be around friends in a comfortable environment. Here, they are all the same. I love that.”
Ashanti Shinn didn’t miss the chance to take a special photo with her son. After all, “he wanted me to be his date because it’s Mother’s Day,” she said. “That made me cry.”
On a special night at the Angel Prom, she wasn’t the only one to shed a tear of joy.