WAYNESBURG – It was hard to tell who was enjoying the prom more, the students, faculty or the family members in attendance Wednesday at East Franklin School in Waynesburg.
In every sense, this was a traditional prom, with suits and ties, gowns, flowers and glitzy decorations. But there was something that made this prom an exceptionally special one. The students who attend East Franklin School are there because they have been given a label. Some have autism, others anxiety issues or obsessive compulsive disorders. A few find themselves there because they simply didn’t fit in at their home school district.
“It’s absolutely amazing; the smile on my daughter’s face all day is amazing,” said Jamie Ermlick Wilcher, whose daughter, Taylor, 14, attends the school. Taylor, who is mostly non-verbal, has a diagnosis of autism with moderate intellectual disability. Wilcher said, for various reasons, Taylor hasn’t been quite herself recently.
“Seeing her out there dancing and smiling, this is my Tay. They have given me ‘my Tay’ back. We hadn’t had her for a while. She’s been dealing with a lot of stuff,” Wilcher said, noting Taylor had been suffering seizures and going through physical changes as a teenager. “I don’t know how to thank them (the prom organizers) enough.”
This was an opportunity for Taylor to be like every other kid her age, Wilcher said through tears.
Fellow parents Rose Stone and Ellen Guesman Boudreau echoed Wilcher’s sentiments.
It was Boudreau who approached East Franklin principal Angela Thompson with the idea of a prom. Thompson jumped at the opportunity and the community supported the prom overwhelmingly with financial support, donated services, gowns, suits, hair and makeup, music and decorations.
“We were shocked at the amount of support and what people were willing to do to help,” Thompson said. She said proms will continue at East Franklin and join other events that regular students experience.
Boudreau has two sons who attend East Franklin, Pierre and Jacques. Both boys were diagnosed with autism as toddlers. Holding back tears, Boudreau said the prom exceeded her wildest expectations. She shied away from praise for spearheading the event. “It’s my kids. This is all I have. I have to make it happen,” she said. “It is for them.”
Lorraine Rush, a paraprofessional at the school, said, “It wasn’t just about her kids. It was about all of them. She wants to make a difference for all of the kids.”
Although Pierre opted out of attending, Jacques surprised his mother with his dancing moves. There were no ‘wallflowers’ at this prom. Everyone danced.
Rose Stone said her daughter, Sarah, of Carmichaels, like most teen girls, likes to dance in front of her bedroom mirror. Stone quipped she may need to replace the carpeting in front of the mirror if she keeps it up.
“She has been excited waiting the past three months, from the time she found out they might have one,” Stone said. With a wide smile. Sarah chimed in about her love of dancing, “I dance like crazy,” she said.
Like the gang from “The Breakfast Club” movie, a group of friends – Kyiva McCollough, 17, Rebecca McOsker, 16, Cheyenne Hartzog, 17, and Jonathon Abbott, 17 – each said they felt like outsiders until they came to East Franklin. Abbott graduated a week ago from California High School and returned specifically to attend the prom to “be with these guys,” he said of the three girls.
When Abbott attended his high school graduation, it was typical of past experiences, he said. “They hadn’t seen me in a while because I was going here (East Franklin),” he said. “They asked me when they let me out of jail.”
At East Franklin, these teens say they found a place where they aren’t judged and they try to look out for other kids.
“There are kids here with disabilities who won’t have a chance to ever go to a real prom. We wanted to make all the girls princesses,” McOsker said, wearing a gown befitting a princess herself. “We still have a chance of going to our prom. This is their school. This is their prom,” she said referring to her classmates with more serious disabiities.