2017-05-19 / Family

A prom to remember

More than 400 youths with special needs are expected to attend
By Caitlin Trude

LOOKING SHARP—From left, Steven Meier, Robert Secrest, and Tom Meier will attend prom tonight, May 19, at the Ventura County Fairgrounds. The theme of the evening is “A Night to Remember.” 
BOBBY CURTIS/Acorn Newspapers LOOKING SHARP—From left, Steven Meier, Robert Secrest, and Tom Meier will attend prom tonight, May 19, at the Ventura County Fairgrounds. The theme of the evening is “A Night to Remember.” BOBBY CURTIS/Acorn Newspapers Upbeat dance music played loudly in the classroom as Heejung Kim showed her students an assortment of white button-up shirts and colorful ties.

“Today we’re going over what we should do for prom,” she told her class on a recent Tuesday afternoon.

The students are enrolled in the Ventura County Office of Education’s special education program called ACCESS at 30 Flory Ave. in Moorpark.

Kim’s class had just finished watching a video tutorial on how to tie a tie.

Once some of the students completed the task with help from their teachers, they strutted onto the red carpet that was rolled out for the day’s lesson. As the music thump-thumped, the teens struck poses and high-fived their classmates.

Kim gave student Robert Secrest the choice of a silver tie or a teal one.

He pointed to the teal tie.

His mom, Debbie Secrest, said her 19-year-old son is getting ready to attend his first prom. It’s called “A Night to Remember.”

Organized by a Ventura church, the free countywide event is for students with special needs ages 12 to 25. It will take place tonight at 6:30 at the Ventura County Fairgrounds, 10 W. Harbor Blvd.

“Very handsome, young man!” Secrest told her son as he showed off his tie. “Very nice job.”

Robert has been diagnosed with congenital hydrocephalus, in which the brain contains an abnormal amount of cerebrospinal fluid, and with cerebral palsy, a physical disability that affects muscle coordination and posture.

“He’s nonverbal, but if you spend any time with him, he gets his point across,” Secrest said. “He knows so much more than people gauge him for. He has a very good personality, he’s smart (and) funny.”

Although Secrest was concerned that her son might be overwhelmed by all the excitement of his big night, she wants to see how well he’ll adjust.

“When you earn his trust, he’s very social,” she said. “He has no fear, and just because he’s in the wheelchair he’s not going to break. He’s a tough kid.”

Robert’s teacher, who attended the prom last year, looks forward to seeing some of her students out on the dance floor.

“The whole thing is really (heartwarming),” Kim said. “It’s so emotional, and they’re so happy.”

She said the experience will allow her students to get more practice in social settings outside of school.

“They should learn how to be ready for any kind of event: weddings, their birthday parties, any kind of . . . social events. That’s really important,” Kim said. “Just getting out of the classroom (and being) exposed to the community, it means a lot to them. It’s a really good environment for them to expose themselves to a strange place and (new) people, noises, everything.”

Robert’s mom agreed.

“Since Robert’s not verbal, it’s very important to us that he gets out in the community and learns these things, because this is a lifelong thing for him,” Secrest said. “His dad and I, we will eventually be here no longer, and we need to make sure that he has all the tools available (to him).”

Big night

The prom is hosted by the members of Mission Church in Ventura. They collected donations to cover the cost of prom guests’ food, limo rides, tuxedos and dresses, hair and makeup styling, formal photos, a DJ and more.

Jen Oakes, organizer of the prom, said “A Night to Remember” was created six years ago and started out with about 60 guests. Each year, the guest list continues to grow.

Known as the chief party thrower at Mission Church, Oakes said that about 2,000 volunteers are helping to pull off this year’s prom, which will serve more than 450 students with special needs throughout the county.

“The whole reason we do it is (because) there’s so much wrong in the world and so much heartache and pain that we all experience on different levels,” Oakes said. “I just want to be a part of something that’s right in the world and bringing heaven to earth (and) to offer something with no strings attached.”

Every year she looks forward to seeing each prom guest and their host having a blast on the dance floor.

“It’s really a fun event to plan because everybody loves it so much,” Oakes said.

For more information about “A Night to Remember,” visit www.ntrventura.com.

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