Friends Helping Friends, a student-led organization at Bradwell Institute, will make history with its first-ever Liberty County Special Needs Gala at 6 p.m. Friday.
"It’s the first event of its kind in the entire coastal region," special-education teacher and Friends Helping Friends adviser Charlie Moon said. "The gala will host adaptive special-needs students and their families from Bradwell, Liberty County High and the Transition Academy."
Friends Helping Friends connects special-education students with their general-education peers. General-education students help special-needs students with their academics and motor skills, spend time in their classrooms, play outside and escort them to buses.
"They say all the time it’s about getting them to be in our environment, and we do," Friends member Zahnay Smoaka said. "But FHF gave us a chance to be in their shoes and see what they do every day, interact and find out more about them. A lot of people are scared and don’t really know them. But when you hang out with them, you realize they’re just like you."
The gala was Moon’s idea. He previously worked in Atlanta, where he organized a similar gala. When interviewing at Bradwell, he mentioned wanting to do the same here.
Friends Helping Friends raised more than $8,000 for gala possible. The club hosted a basketball skills tournament, sold doughnuts and received portions of sales from Cicis Pizza, Pizza Hut and Zaxby’s restaurants on designated nights. They were able to rent two stretch Hummer limousines, buy decorations and have prom dresses and tuxedos donated.
Moon said the gala is "a gift to the entire special-education community at the high school level."
The 225-person guest list includes administrators, school board members, bus drivers, speech therapists and the students’ families. The speaker will be an aide to U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Ga. There will be music, dancing and dinner catered by In His Hands.
Jesus Estrada and Everett Lewis are both ready. Estrada said he is going to wear a black suit with a white shirt. Lewis will be dressed in green and black.
"I know that I’m going to have some fun," Estrada said.
Friends Helping Friends members will serve as waiters for the evening.
A school trip to Six Flags was scheduled for the same day as the gala. Some Friends Helping Friends members had already made plans to go on the trip, but decided to stay and work.
"For me, this will be my first year and only year to be able to go to Six Flags because of the required classes you need to go," Smoaka said. "I’ve never gone, but I’ve never been to gala either. What does the program mean to you? That’s what it comes down to. I can always go to Six Flags."
Tatiana Alvarez did not hesitate in her choice.
"As soon as I found out that they changed the date, I said, ‘Well, I guess that’s God telling me that I don’t need to go to Six Flags.’ All the effort we put in (to the gala), it’s not worth going to Six Flags," she said. "This is a once-in-a lifetime event. … These are my kids. I consider them family."
Kimani Troupe said she joined the club to get a sense of working with kids. She wants to be a pediatrician.
Alyssa Young said the club has taught her to be less judgmental. Troupe learned to be more open-minded. Smoaka learned patience.
Becky McGarrah, the president of Bradwell’s Parent Teacher Organization, spearheaded decoration and setup, along with Laura Kupres, BI’s yearbook adviser. McGarrah was recognized by Moon and Friends Helping Friends students for her work. Students rolled out a red carpet for her in the school’s common area, flooded her with invitations and made a banner.
McGarrah was in charge of Bradwell’s recent prom. The special-needs gala will be in the school’s cafeteria.
McGarrah said she feels a connection with the special-needs students. She herself has a learning disability, and she has a master’s degree.
"I look and remember how I was in school and I was put in a classroom with students where some had a stigma to them. So I understand where some of these kids are," she said. "I think I wouldn’t have done it without these special-education teachers, and I’m thankful to them. I’m giving back to my teachers that helped me…
"What these (special needs) kids do around the school is amazing," she continued. "They tug at your heart every single day and open your eyes and they bless you…. I think they’re going to enjoy it because it’s their prom..."
Moon thinks there will be around 350 attending next year’s gala after people experience the inaugural event.
To get more information about the gala or make donations, email Moon at firstname.lastname@example.org.