October 09, 2013 - Megan Kerin and Hope McColl believe everyone deserves to go to prom.
OHS seniors Hope McColl (left) and Megan Kerin are working hard to put on a prom for special education students. Photo by C.J. Carnacchio. (click for larger version)
That's why the two Oxford High School seniors are in the process of planning an alternative prom for special education students in and around the school district.
"We want to give them their own night where everything's taken care of," Kerin said. "They get gypped out of so much in life, we want them to have one night to themselves."
"I think it's really important they get their own special night," McColl said. "Going to a dance will be a big thing for them."
The prom will take place on April 26 and be open to any Oxford special education student in grades 9-12. There are about 100 special education students at OHS with disabilities ranging from mild to severe, according to Kerin.
"The kids are really into it," Kerin said. "They already picked out a theme – 'A Night Under the Stars.' They really want a romantic, almost Paris-like theme."
The prom would also be open to special education students from surrounding school districts such as Lake Orion, Brandon, Clarkston and Lapeer.
"If home-schooled special education kids want to come, they're welcome, too," Kerin said.
Location and time for the prom have yet to be determined.
Right now, they're leaning toward holding it at Oxford Hills Golf & Country Club, but other venues are being explored.
Kerin said it would be nice if a venue was donated for the evening, but "we're prepared to raise the money (to pay) if we need to."
Unlike traditional proms, Kerin and McColl are working hard to ensure that this prom will cost students little or no money.
Their goal is free admission.
Families with children in special education typically spend a significant amount money in terms of medical expenses, according to Kerin, and they don't want to add to that financial burden.
OHS teacher Josh Smokovitz has agreed to serve as the DJ, free of charge, and Jacobsen's Flowers, of Lake Orion, will be donating some flowers.
To ensure students have something nice to wear, Kerin indicated they will be asking folks to donate new and gently-used dresses for the girls and suits for the fellas.
They're also hoping to supply the hair, makeup, nails and transportation free to Oxford students.
Kerin noted the students indicated they don't want to be served a full-blown, multi-course dinner like at a traditional prom; they just want pizza, hot dogs, popcorn and an ice cream bar.
Whether or not a Prom King and Queen will be selected is still being discussed. Kerin indicated they're thinking of having a dance competition to determine who gets crowned.
"The kids love dancing and are really into it," said Kerin, who noted they're big fans of Michael Jackson's classic song "Thriller."
"They really enjoy that video and they want to learn how to do it," she noted.
To help raise funds for this special prom, there will be a Zombie Walk event on Tuesday, Oct. 29. Children, teenagers and adults will meet in downtown Oxford at 5 p.m., wearing their best zombie attire (i.e. clothing that's tattered, worn, torn and dirty). There, they will get their faces painted by OHS theater students to resemble the walking dead.
Around 5:30 p.m., everyone will begin walking up to OHS. But they won't walk normally; they'll walk like zombies – slow, awkward and creepy.
Once they reach OHS, they can purchase Halloween-type concessions and watch a family-friendly movie.
Cost to participate in the Zombie Walk is $7 per person or $15 each for those who wish to purchase a T-shirt in advance.
Half of the proceeds will go toward Oxford's special prom, while the other 50 percent will be donated to Corner Pieces, a Sault Ste. Marie-based nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting Michigan families dealing with autism.
Kerin and McColl got the idea to hold this special prom because of the independent study they're doing in an OHS class known as Intro to Life Skills.
The class is made up of students with a variety of disabilities including autism, Down's syndrome, cognitive impairment and severe cases of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).
"There's not one specific disability in there," said Kerin, who noted with some students, their disabilities are "very evident," while others "you wouldn't know unless you spoke to them" or see their difficulty taking a test.
Some of these students aren't able to attend the traditional prom because of food allergies, safety concerns, handicap accessibility issues and behavioral issues.
But the biggest factor seems to be comfort.
Kerin explained some of these students just don't feel comfortable attending an event where they don't feel like they fit in or worse, they might encounter students who have bullied them in the past.
"That's one night they don't want to be around them," she said. "It's understandable from that point of view. They just want their own night."
McColl noted special education students are "completely welcome" at the traditional prom. "We would accept them and I think it would be great," she said.
But she recognizes that could pose challenges for some of them, so having an alternative prom is way to give everyone access to one of the most memorable events of a high school career.
This prom also gives these students an opportunity to show how independent they can be and that in many ways, they're no different from any other teenager, according to McColl.
"They're such great kids and people don't really see how much they can do on their own," she said.
McColl noted the students will have a lot involvement in picking out and making the prom decorations. This will help give them a sense of accomplishment.
This prom is particularly important to Kerin who wants to pursue a career in special education. "People think we can teach them so much, but it's really them that teaches us everything about how to be a better person because they have the biggest hearts," she said.
Kerin is no stranger to dealing with individuals with disabilities.
Her father, Kevin, is 70 percent blind.
"Growing up, I see the challenges each day brings for him," Kerin said.
Spending time with special education students at OHS has shown her that no matter what things a person may lose due to their disability, they don't let it take away from who they are as people.
"They learn to live with it," Kerin said. "They're the strongest people I know because they don't let anything break them. They still come in with a smile every day."
These students have taught Kerin to never give up.
In addition to their mental and physical challenges, many of them face bullying and ridicule on a daily basis as they walk through the school's hallways.
Kerin said she's heard "the meanest things you can possibly think of."
"They get made fun of day after day and people push them down their entire lives, but they never let it break them," she said. "They stay true to themselves throughout it all. They never give up. They keep trying. Just like us, they have bad days, but they never let it break who they are. They stay true themselves more than, I think, anybody else does."
McColl noted the negative comments are often uttered as if special education students can't understand what's being said about them and that's not the case. They hear the comments and those words stay with them.
"I don't think it's fair that they're being judged just because they look different or they learn a little differently," McColl said. "They're no different (than anyone else); they just have a different way of expressing themselves."
McColl hopes this prom will emphasize their similarities as teenagers as opposed to their differences as individuals with disabilities.
Kerin really wants this prom to be a night where special education students "don't have to worry about anyone making fun of them or judging them."
"I want them to be able to have fun and be themselves," she said. "They know they're different. They know that they're not considered mainstream. But I want them to know that just because they're not considered mainstream doesn't mean they shouldn't have the same opportunities."
For more information about the prom and opportunities to volunteer or donate, please contact Megan Kerin at (248) 320-7713 or Hope McColl at (248) 464-9665. Those interested in the Zombie Walk, please call McColl.
CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.