Special-needs students from around Liberty County danced the night away at a gala held in their honor Friday evening at Bradwell Institute.
Bradwell’s cafeteria was transformed into a colorful, whimsical scene for the inaugural Liberty County Special Needs Gala for high school-age special-education students. Dr. Seuss was the theme, with the phrases “Oh the Places You’ll Go” and “The Cat in the Hat” written on hats placed around the cafeteria. Different-colored fabrics fastened to the ceiling and met in the center, joining a chandelier. There were centerpieces of colored tissue paper pompoms in vases of lollipops, colorful Dr. Seuss-like trees, a student playing violin as guests entered the cafeteria, a disc jockey, photo booth with props and a mobile photo booth from J&K Photo Booths. Workers walked around the room carrying large, decorated frames and stopped in front of students who wanted their pictures taken.
Special-needs students walked the red carpet, which was flanked by white curtains and colored fabric overhead, into the cafeteria. They were greeted with cheers and applause from family members, school administrators, school board members and teachers. Some students were escorted down the red carpet by members of Friends Helping Friends, the student-led organization at Bradwell that connects special-education students with their general-education peers.
Principal Scott Carrier said seeing the gala come together was “wonderful to watch.”
“It has really helped our special-needs kids, helped them feel special here at our school,” he said. “It’s been great for other students because it’s been an opportunity for them to get in and help — not just with this event, but with the everyday lives of some of their fellow classmates. It really made a big difference here at Bradwell Institute.”
Guests enjoyed a catered dinner, and then students went on a “chariot ride.” They filed outside to the bus ramp and climbed into three stretch limousines for a ride around town. While they were chauffeured, the cafeteria was changed into a dance floor. The tables that seated guests for dinner were moved out of the way. When students returned, they walked down the red carpet again to the dance floor, although some did not wait to start dancing.
Friends Helping Friends members Melany Salvador, MariaElena Lealofi, Rebekah Kim and Samantha McCall were honored for their dedication to the club. They each received a $150 scholarship.
Charlie Moon, BI special-education teacher and FHF adviser, said he received positive feedback from school administration and parents.
“I had several parents in tears tell me they loved watching their kids interact with non-disabled peers,” he said. “Many had seen it once in a while with one person in an isolated event, but never with so many. Parents were in awe at how FHF really loved being around their children. They could tell FHF has been around their students all year long.”
One parent with a special-needs daughter reported seeing a change in her. According to Moon, the parent said, “My kid talks to me now. Before, she never said anything unless she was really mad. It’s so frustrating when you can’t talk to your kid, but you know she can talk. Now, I see why she talks so much now. These FHF kids are around her all the time. And when they see her at Wal-Mart, they say hey to her. She says hey back. I ask her who that was, and she says that was her friend.”
Janice Banks brought her grandson to the gala.
“I was elated that there was a group of kids that interact with special-needs kids,” she said. “This is wonderful. It gives them a chance to shine.”
Moon said there were some logistical issues to work through before the event, but the goal was to create “magic for the families.”
“We wanted the families to see that their kids have been loved by so many people their own age,” he said. “It’s been a phenomenal three weeks — the coverage from the Coastal Courier then being on WJCL nightly news, then the event. Hopefully, we’ve started a coastal tradition. We’d love to see FHF groups popping up all over.”
Moon said FHF students did not work hard all year just for the gala.
“They’re with them every day in the trenches, working with them and getting to know them,” he said. “That was proved when the dancing started — how much fun they all had together.”
Moon thanked Becky McGarrah, the president of the BI Parent Teacher Organization and Laura Kupres, the school’s yearbook adviser, for the decorations, organizing the gala and make it a memorable event.