The catwalk glowed, the music pounded, and 19 students strutted their stuff in prom finery to the applause, gasps and cheers of their families and friends in the Burlington County Special Services multipurpose room. The district’s first prom fashion show gave the students the opportunity to express themselves through fashion, and show off the runway moves they’d perfected with the help of family and staff.
“We hold a prom every year, but this year we wanted to add an event that expands the experience and gets the parents involved,” said event organizer Becky Polito. “We were fortunate to get donations from a number of organizations, so the students really got an opportunity to select clothes that reflected their personalities.”
David’s Bridal, Drexel University’s Delta Zeta sorority, and Macy’s donated gowns and formal wear. Flowers and other materials were provided by Northern Burlington School District families and Vintage Oceans – Wedding & Event Flowers. The Burlington County Special Services Education Association sponsored the event and donated food and drinks through an NJEA Pride in Public Education grant.
“For a long time, we’ve had prom dresses and formal wear donated so our students can easily participate in the prom,” Burlington County Special Services Education Association (BCSSEA) President Christine Hewitt said. “This year, we thought a prom fashion show would be a great Pride event that would build on that while getting the parents and community involved.”
None of the students pay for their prom fashions so that every student can participate regardless of his or her income level. The experience of selecting and modeling the clothes is unique for many of them. One 16-year old girl said she had never worn a dress before, let alone a formal gown.
The students who participated in the prom fashion show come from each of the school’s programs—autistic, multiple disability, and behavioral.
Students are told that they can wear comfortable shoes, but some selected high heels for their turn on the runway.
Teaghan, 17, was an enthusiastic participant. She modeled two dresses to a crowd that included her mother, a retired teacher from Florence Township, and aunt, a retired teacher from Lawrence Township.
“I’ve always loved fashion,” Teaghan said. “When I was younger, I wanted to learn to be a designer.”
Teaghan’s dress selections were influenced by her love of “things that sparkle.”
To the surprise of staff, many more boys than girls wanted to participate in the fashion show, so each girl was paired to walk the runway with at least two boys.
Ean, 18, was one of the many boys who participated. “I wanted to be part of the group and be confident,” he said. “I love to dress up.” His perfectly polished shoes were evidence of that, as was a staff member’s testimonial that Ean is fashionably dressed every day. He practiced his catwalk moves with his mother, from his walk to his turns, and some cover model-worthy poses.
Kyshawna, 18, changed out of her formal gown but kept a floral crown in her hair for the after-party. “I like to model and take pictures and have a good time,” she said, in between posing for selfies with her friends.
Despite her comfort in front of the camera, she admitted to some apprehension. “I was nervous until I walked down the runway with my best friend.”
The BCSSEA holds a variety of Pride-funded events throughout the year.
“These events are critical for us to connect the community with the schools and show the great things our students are achieving,” said Pat Niehaus, BCSSEA Pride chair and the 2016 NJEA ESP of the Year. “We rely on the support of our freeholders to ensure we have the resources necessary to provide our students with the opportunities they need, and we need the communities we serve to see the value of what we provide. Getting more people involved and interacting with our students doesn’t just strengthen our school and benefit our students, it strengthens our communities.”