Flashing lights, floor-length dresses and blaring music are all essential components of the most anticipated high school event of the year — prom. While high school proms tend to be the highlight of the high school experience, they are often inaccessible and exclude students with disabilities.
Individuals such as football player Tim Tebow have tried to combat this issue by hosting inclusive proms at churches across the globe in a worldwide event called “Night to Shine.” Trinity Presbyterian Church, located about 10 minutes from Central Grounds, hosted a Night to Shine-inspired event Saturday night known as Fall Ball.
Fall Ball was a night of fun and dancing centered on celebrating over 70 people with disabilities aged 14 and older. Second-year College student Lauren Kim was among the 200 University volunteers at the event, many of whom heard about Fall Ball through Trinity or various on-Grounds Christian fellowships.
“I think it’s really great what they’re doing,” Kim said. “It’s a wonderful way to get involved with the larger Charlottesville community. I think a lot of times we get so wrapped up in our own Grounds that we forget there’s a whole town outside.”
University students connected with community members at Fall Ball and served on a variety of different teams from hair and makeup to red carpet paparazzi to shoe shiners. As each guest exited their car, their name was formally announced and a team of volunteers lining each side of a red carpet cheered, high-fiving guests as they showed off their dresses and tuxedos.
Guests were greeted by volunteers with corsages, boutonnieres, princely crowns and tiaras as they made their way to the hair and makeup station. Karaoke, a photo booth, caricatures, limo rides and dancing were among the many activity stations set up for the guests. The volunteers at each station acted more like cheerleaders than staff, ensuring that every guest would feel like royalty.
Meg Evett, event coordinator and Class of 2019 alumna, said that Fall Ball would not have been possible without the help and enthusiasm of University students.
“It was so special to see their dedication to and excitement for this event!” said Evett. “Fall Ball is all about a fun, memorable night focused on God’s love for people of all abilities, and every volunteer … plays an important role in making … our guests feel loved and celebrated.”
Third-year Curry student Matthew Houff volunteered as a buddy, meaning he was paired with one guest to hang out with for the entire event. Houff’s favorite moments from Saturday night included his buddy telling him stories about the things he loves to do like bowling and playing the guitar.
“He seems really talented,” Houff said of his buddy. “I would’ve loved to have seen him in his element.”
Trinity offered a sensory room for guests who may be overstimulated and a parents’ room with snacks and massages. Kristen Richbourg, second-year College student and volunteer, noted how valuable it is to check on the caretakers of individuals with disabilities.
“[The event organizers are] recognizing that the parents need a break too,” Richbourg said. “Sometimes just giving the parents that break and that time to rest and relax and … to talk to them about how they’re doing is important too.”
When asked what they wished more of their peers knew about people with disabilities, student volunteers shared what they have learned from their experiences. Kim wants University students to use language that is people first and disability second, rather than vice versa, as in “disabled man” or “autistic girl.”
“When we use their disability as their main descriptor, we kind of take away their humanity,” Kim said. “People with disabilities are people … first and foremost.”
Richbourg, who worked at a summer camp for children with disabilities this past summer, wishes more people were willing to interact with people with disabilities. She does not want people to be too scared or nervous to walk up and start a conversation with someone with disabilities.
“They want to get to know you too,” Richbourg said. “We think that they’re in their own little world and that they might not want to meet us. But ... people with disabilities don’t always have people approach them looking to just make a friend.”
Houff wishes more University students realized that a label provided by a doctor does not define or explain a person. While that diagnosis may provide context, it does not describe character.
“A lot of times when someone has a disability, we can ask what [it is] and try to categorize them by a name … but really even individuals who have the same diagnostic label have different capabilities and do different things,” Houff said. “So, if I had to say one thing, it’s that the best way to know someone’s ability is just to ask them.”
The prom also provided University students with the opportunity to interact with a usually underrepresented population on Grounds.
Dexter sees events like Fall Ball as a way for students to narrow the divide between the University and Charlottesville by interacting with the Charlottesville community.
“I would just encourage students at U.Va. to … get involved with something outside of school,” Kim said. “You might have a great time and learn a lot of new lessons and have a lot of great experiences. There’s a lot outside.”