By Sarah Wilson
Special to The Columbus Packet
The entire building shook as the bass bumped last Saturday night at Mt. Vernon Church’s Second Annual Joy Prom. More than 70 couples danced for hours to everything from the YMCA to the Harlem Shake while parents, volunteers and friends watched with wide smiles.
The Joy Prom is a prom for special needs people of all ages in the area who might not have a positive prom experience of their own. They are given the celebrity treatment pre-prom with hair, nails, and makeup styling provided for the ladies and shoe shines for the gentlemen.
Tiffany Ashmore, a freelance makeup artist,who volunteered for the second year to help beautify the ladies, said, “It’s such a wonderful opportunity for the girls. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of this?”
Prom participant Joy Hamby of Columbus could barely contain herself in the hair and makeup room.
“I want to see my date, he’s tall and handsome,” she said. “He’s going to ride with me and walk me down the aisle.”
She also said she loves the Packet, which she has lovingly nicknamed “The Package.” “They be walking around trying to catch people,” Hamby said.
Formal attire was even provided, as was transportation in style on the Columbus double-decker tour bus. The bus took the couples on a short pleasure tour before dropping them off at the dance, where hundreds of people cheered, clapped and snapped photographs as each pair sauntered down a red carpet and into their prom.
Tracy Morrison, of New Hope, who volunteered on the double decker tour bus at the prom, said she was thrilled to be involved in the event.
“I subbed (substituted) at the school for a really long time and often subbed for the special needs classes. I have a heart for these kids and I just knew this would be a blessing for them. I get more out of it than they do — also, my husband had a tux and needed an opportunity to wear it,” she said smiling.
The prom-goers, the youngest being 13 and the oldest 73, were escorted by young people from local churches, schools and the Columbus Air Force Base who dressed themselves up in their best formal attire and volunteered to be dates to the participants.
The parent of one participant said she couldn’t have been more impressed with the event — especially with the escorts.
Linda Breazeale, mother of 18-year-old Debra Ann Breazeale of Starkville said that her daughter was smiling from ear to ear all night. This is their second year attending the Joy Prom, which they found out about through Debra’s Challenger Baseball League. Breazeale said that last year’s Starkville High Prom landed on the same night as the first Joy Prom and they chose to attend Mt. Vernon’s event.
“The church did such a great job,” Linda. “It was so amazing to witness. The part that I found most amazing was how great their escorts were with them. They were coached very well and seemed prepared for anything. None of them were playing with cell phones or engaging in any distractions, they were fully engaged with their dates. It was amazing to watch.”
Cole Phillips, Debra’s date for the evening, is a student at Mississippi University for Women where he is a junior nursing major. Phillips said he volunteered because he thought it was a good cause. “I thought it’d be fun and it has been,” he said. “I like (my date), we danced. I’d say it’s been more fun than my own prom.”
Mt. Vernon Pastor Josh Daffern said he’s heard the same from many of his youth. Daffern was involved in special needs proms before coming to Mt. Vernon and says he is enjoying watching the church’s event grow.
“I’ve done this for six years now and have had six years of high school students,” Daffern said. “The (special needs students) will dance our students into the ground. Our students constantly say this is better than their own proms.”
Daffern called this year’s event “incredible.”
“Our folks have really outdone themselves,” he said. “It’s exciting to see this opportunity to serve others.” “The special needs community is very close knit and we love to have them here.”
The Masquerade Ball
The theme of Saturday’s event was “Masquerade Ball” and several partiers wore face masks to play into the motif.
Robin Tate, mother of 21-year-old prom participant Courtney Easter, traveled from Hamilton to attend the dance for the second year.
“I think this is the most wonderful thing they do for them,” Tate said. “This is a night they can fit in with their peers with no worry.”
Tate explained that Courtney has a very rare condition called 5P- (minus) Syndrome which affects speech and development. She said that Courtney attended her high school’s prom when she was in school, but that the Joy Prom is “so much more special to her.”
“She has a better time here,”Easter said. Her favorite thing is to socialize with others. (Mine) is letting her just feel at ease here.”
Prom participant Harvey Gerard of Artesia said he loves the prom.
“I love to dance, the food, and my date is good,” he said.
This was Gerard’s first Joy Prom and he said he will definately be back next year. His date Brittany Long of Columbus will be back next year as well. A parishioner at Mt. Vernon, she volunteered and was paired with Harvey, whom she called “the best date ever.”
Mayor Robert Smith even stopped by and dubbed the Joy Prom a “great event.” He volunteered as a door holder for the incoming couples on the red carpet and even posed for some photos with prom-goer and fan Alyson Pierson.
The Making of a Prom
Ann Thompson, who originated the event 22 years ago said that Mt. Vernon has “taken this to a whole new level. Everyone has abilities at this prom, they’re all able here. That was my vision.”
Thompson, who runs the Dr. James W. Hunt Community Home, which serves individuals with intellectual disability, started the prom when she realized that a lot of her students had never had an opportunity to dress up. So every year she started doing a prom event just for special needs residents.
“Twenty-two years later out of the clear blue I get a phone call from Bobbie Sue Pearson.” Thompson said.
She said her pastor had heard about it and that they wanted to take it over and use it as a part of their ministry.” Thompson was overjoyed. While different people or organizations had gotten involved over the years, she knew that it was meant to be bigger.
“They took it and ran with it,” said Thompson.
Thompson wanted to credit the students that volunteered as dates for the evening.
“These kids deserve all the credit, they make this,” Thompson said.
Bobbie Sue Pearson, who has served as project chairman for Mt. Vernon for both Joy Proms said she and her team have been working diligently since January, sometimes meeting on a weekly basis in order to get everything done. In addition to tracking down participants, organizing food, flowers, photography and more were done by a huge team of volunteers who coordinated and recruited local businesses and community members to donate nearly all the supplies for the event. Sponsors included The American Legion, Wings, Fish and More, Huck’s, Chick-Fil-A, United Deli, Pepper’s, Chili’s, Kroger, Wal-Mart, Zaxby’s, Joy’s Flowers, Linda Nail of A Southern Wedding, Ley Elliot Photography, U.S. Food Service, Nu- Look Salon, Profile’s Salon, Sprint Mart, Fit N’ Stitch, Mayor Robert Smith’s office, Chris Ellis Photography, Columbus Visitors Center, The Bride and Groom, Girl Scout Troop 20106, CAFB Commissary, Diane Rockwell, Ashley Youngblood, Fairview Baptist Church, Beersheba Cumberland Presbyterian Church and Mt. Zion Baptist Church.
“I think it was a huge success,” Pearson. “I think that it speaks loudly to the young adults in the community, that they get it. It is such a blessing for us to do. All the hard work for months falls together and its such a beautiful thing to see and be a part of. I would encourage the community to contact the church if they want to be a part of it next year.”