MANITOWOC (AP) - Choosing the right dress or the right suit can be one of the toughest decisions before attending prom. For students with special needs, that decision isn't always available.
Children in Manitowoc recently had the chance to choose a dress or suit during Operation Prom, which offered donated dresses or suits for them to wear to the Lakeshore Special Needs Prom on April 13.
Operation Prom and the prom were created by Laura Ziemer, chairwoman of the Lakeshore Special Needs Prom and her committee of area special needs teachers and parents, the Manitowoc Herald Times Reporter reported.
Ziemer said the prom idea began after she attended the Exceptional Abilities Prom at Appleton North High School last May with Deena Giriyappa, 14, for whom Ziemer has provided care for 12 years. Giriyappa, who has cerebral palsy, is non-verbal, but Ziemer said she squealed with joy the ride back home. Her excitement was what inspired Ziemer to bring a similar event to Manitowoc.
Because the group is not part of a school district, Ziemer needed to find a place to host the prom. Ziemer contacted the Manitowoc Public School District and was given the OK to hold the prom at the JFK Fieldhouse.
A big reason children with special needs don't always attend proms or dances is because of the cost of buying proper attire, according to Kari Zigmunt, high school cognitive disabilities teacher at Valders High School.
"When they have all the other medical needs and things that their child needs, sometimes buying a prom dress and sending them to the prom is the last thing on their mind and this is more within their budget," Zigmunt said.
Ziemer said one parent of a child with autism was so happy about Operation Prom that she began to cry while talking to Ziemer on the phone because she couldn't afford a tuxedo for her son. Operation Prom gave her son a chance to get a suit, she said.
Instead of having parents buy the clothes, Ziemer and her group set up a donation page on Facebook. People donated their unused dresses and suits to the group. Children could then choose which one they wanted. Ziemer said more than 100 dresses were donated at the time of Operation Prom.
During Operation Prom, volunteers from Manitowoc Lutheran High School helped children pick out dresses. One volunteer was junior Katie Waskow. Waskow is a volunteer for New Friends, an organization that works with individuals with special needs.
Waskow said Operation Prom and the Lakeshore Special Needs Prom are another way to work with those with special needs more closely.
"It makes them feel included and loved and accepted, and they can have a friend because a lot of them don't even have friends," Waskow said.
Vyky Becker brought her daughter, Taryn, 14, to Operation Prom.
"And as a parent, it means that she gets to do something that the other children get to do, and for the other parents, it's a great network for us to able to interact with one another," Becker said.
Becker said Taryn is excited to get dressed up and get her hair done for the prom.
"She's a diva and a socialite," Becker said. "She just loves it."
The idea is to make the Lakeshore Special Needs Prom like any other prom. But there will be exceptions, according to Zigmunt.
She said some people with special needs can be prone to seizures, so the prom will tone down the use of bright, flashing lights and loud music. Students also will be able to go to quieter areas in case they feel uncomfortable.
Ziemer said attendees also will be able to make picture frames for the photos that will be taken of them.
The Exceptional Abilities Prom began with 60 people, last year - the prom's 10th year - had about 200 attendees, according to Ziemer. She said she hopes the Lakeshore Special Needs Prom will continue and grow, as well.
"Once we have our first year out of the way, I think we'll be able to show more pictures and show what a neat experience it is," Ziemer said.
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