Special Needs Prom: A Day to Remember for Students in York Region and Simcoe County

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Prom season is upon us and most teens and their parents have been shopping for dresses, dancing shoes and planning the perfect night.

For so many high school students with special needs, there are accessibility barriers, sensory challenges or medical needs that can prevent these teens from participating in this important rite of passage. Again this year, in York Region and Simcoe County, inclusive proms were made possible through the passion and vision of teachers, board administrators, staff and volunteers.

Five years ago, special education teacher Shana Mayer realized that her students with special needs, were not choosing to go to the mainstream school prom and were missing out on this important milestone for both kids and their parents. In partnership with Best Buddies Canada, the York Region District School Board (YRDSB) hosted its 5th Annual Best Buddies Prom on May 18th. It was held at the Le Parc banquet hall in Richmond Hill, who generously donated the space and provided food at a discounted rate. Almost 650 guests attended from 23 YRDSB schools. This event was possible with the help of the school board and the community and required fundraising by parents, students and even staff to support this important initiative.

The Best Buddies Prom was a dream come true for our family. Last year many of our friends and family posted pictures on social media about their teens prom experience and it was very bittersweet. While it’s wonderful to enjoy those moments for others, there is an undeniable tugging at the heart for parents of teen with special needs. I always assumed we would miss out on that opportunity. When we received the invitation, it was glorious! I think I bought her dress the next day! Our entire family enjoyed the event with her. Every parent should have this incredible experience! Mom of Prom attendee Makayla

This year’s theme was “Under the Sea" and the venue was decorated with fake fish, dolphins, balloons that were made to look like bubbles, sand and shells. Students started arriving at 10 a.m. wearing their finest prom gear.  The DJ from The Magen Boys got everyone dancing and kept them on the dancefloor throughout the day. Lunch was served at 11:30 a.m., during which the Awards of Excellence were handed out to all students leaving their community classes this year. It was an emotional day for all the staff, volunteers and students who were in attendance.

When I see the students with special needs dressed up and dancing with their friends, I get emotional. This is truly a special day and most certainly a hard-earned, well-deserved rite of passage
said Event Organizer, Shana Mayer, Interim Department Head of Special Education

Simcoe County District School Board (SCDSB) hosted its third daytime prom for students with special needs. Prom organizer, Laura Kell, Life Skills and ESL Teacher at Barrie North Collegiate says that this year’s country-themed prom had over 200 students from various high schools and included decorations, a midday dance, pizza lunch, fun photo booth, and an open snack and refreshment table.

Thanks to generous donations from the board, unions and private sponsors, there was no ticket cost for the students. Students from the technology department’s hairstyling and aesthetics programs treated the prom attendees to free hair and make-up services before the dance. Organized by the special education staff (teachers and Educational Assistants) in collaboration with student volunteers (including the Leadership class and students interested in being a part of the event), these prom attendees enjoyed all the festivities and made memories to last a lifetime.

I got involved because as an educator and the Equity and Inclusion Key Point Person (KPP) for my school I believe inclusiveness is vital in our school community and outside community.  I like to demonstrate to students that everyone is valued, respected and need to be represented and welcomed in our classroom as well as outside of the classroom. It meant a lot to me to see the students happy and feeling special which every one of them are in my eyes and will always be; they are unique and they need to know that.  I love that as an educator I have the ability to help shape the lives of students and be involved in as many ways I can to help them succeed says Ms. Jenny Manoim – OCT Barrie North Collegiate Institute

Both school boards took the time to plan events that had supports in place so all students could participate and have a great time. The events were made accessible and inclusive by meeting the needs of the students with physical and sensory needs by providing alternative spaces for students wanting a break, quiet activity or quiet meal area, change table and lift in a private area and staff to help make the day a huge success. Children’s Treatment Network (CTN) was also thrilled to support one student with money from the CTN Family Fund to provide accessible transportation to the prom and her graduation.

Congratulations to our partners at the York Region and Simcoe County District School Boards on their incredible work hosting inclusive proms for kids with special needs. We know that these memories will stay with both students and families for many years to come.