Though trying to “fit in” can be challenging for those with special needs, seamless blending in is precisely what they crave. That is why three churches—Mission Church; First Presbyterian Houston; and Willow Creek Community Church—have each found ways to introduce normalcy and inclusion into the lives of special needs individuals in their communities.
Every spring, Mission Church, whose average weekend attendance is 1,300, hosts “A Night to Remember”—a fun-filled, fast-paced prom for “the overlooked and the undercelebrated.” Lead Pastor Mike Hickerson and Jen Oaks, outreach director, hosted the first prom in 2012, hoping that 20 guests might come; instead, 200 people showed up. Each year since, that number has grown by about 100, so now they hold the event at the local fairground.
“This enables us to never have to cap the event,” says Oaks. “We want as many people as possible to participate.”
It takes 1,000 volunteers to ensure that every last detail is covered. Paired with a volunteer student-host from the community, each guest gets their hair and makeup done, a prom dress or tuxedo and a boutonniere or corsage—for free. They are then treated to a limo ride by the ocean before arriving at the “Red Carpet,” where they are announced by name and greeted by “paparazzi” who cheer, clap and offer high-fives. After a formal photograph is snapped, the guests dance the night away to fast, fun songs.
“We really blow it out,” says Oaks, who notes that the dance floor acts as the great equalizer. “You can’t tell who has special needs and who doesn’t. Everyone is the same for a time.”
Two years ago, a guest named Amanda, who was in hospice care, desperately wanted to attend “A Night to Remember.” Staff escorted her to the front of the line, found her a special host and watched as she partied away the evening. Amanda died two weeks later, but the team was thrilled to have had the opportunity to provide such a memorable experience for her and her family.
“To have the chance to celebrate with Amanda on this side of heaven was really special,” recalls Oaks.