'Jesus Prom' welcomes those with special needs

There was a red carpet leading to the door, and in the cavernous party space, a dance floor, disco balls, a live band and a giant football helmet like the ones college teams run through on game day. The flood lights outside were swirling overhead, cutting through the dark night as if George Clooney had come home for a movie premiere.

But 16-year-old Jessica Roberts was focused on the two things that matter most to a girl on her prom night: the beautiful corsage on her wrist and the cute boy by her side.

It was a limo that delivered Jessica and her date, Shaun Ramy, from their homes in Rowan County to the Jesus Prom last Saturday. This is the 10th year that Southland Christian Church in Jessamine County has thrown the event for anyone with a disability, either physical or mental.

Snapping their own shots, Jessica's mothers, Karen Roberts and April Miller, stood behind one of the official prom photographers, urging their daughter and Shaun to smile.

For the women it was a chance for their daughter to enjoy a special night, and maybe it could be a bit of a practice run for Jessica's prom at her own school.

But, Roberts said, one of the things that really made the night memorable is the company she was keeping. "One of the things that we like is that there are other people like her here," she said.

That feeling of belonging is at the heart of the prom, said minister Brewster McLeod, who oversees the production.

He cites Luke 14:12-14: "Then Jesus said to his host, 'When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed."

Even though many people with disabilities are more mainstreamed than ever before, they can have a difficult time socially, he said. The Jesus Prom is an opportunity to interact with their peers in a welcoming environment, without all the pressures at a mainstream dance. It is a chance not only to have fun but meet new people.

Each year, more than 1,000 prom-goers and an equally large number of volunteers transform the megachurch into a paradise. The event is free and open to anyone with physical or mental disabilities. Some are teenagers, others senior citizens, and each is paired with a volunteer escort to help him or her navigate the packed dance.

"She just loves to get out," Janis Owens said of her 38-year-old daughter, prom-goer Sheri Owens. Sheri, who doesn't talk, was swaying to the music. "I think it is just wonderful that they do this," Janis said.

This year the theme was "Big Blue," and the church hallways were awash in the signature color of the University of Kentucky Wildcats.

In addition to the dance floor, where people were bopping in the dim lights moments after the doors opened, there was a photographer's lounge, temporary-tattoo and face-painting stations, a sit-down dinner and a game room. There was also a worship service during the prom.

McLeod said that before Sunday morning the church would be stripped down and worship service-ready. Planning for next year won't be far behind. (Every other year, the prom-goers get the formal-dance experience and are supplied with evening gowns and tuxedos.)

"It was just so much fun last year, that I had to do it again," said volunteer Ryan Stinett, a senior biology major at UK who recruited several friends to join her at this year's prom. "It was just an awesome experience."

Beth Crawford, 38, has been to the Jesus Prom every year. She said she finds it exhilarating and a little bit overwhelming. Crawford, who lives with two other women in a special home setting, said, "I get a little bit nervous with all the people." She grinned at her escort, Mitch Poole, and then said, "But he's OK."

Another veteran prom-goer, Tannon Snyder, who says he is 40 with more enthusiasm than any 40-year-old has a right to have, is used to being out in the community. He has for years worked at a Red Lobster restaurant. But, he said, he still looks forward to the Jesus Prom each year.

Asked what he liked best about the prom, he said, "The dance! The dance!"