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Prom-ready Students, parents get into the swing at Snowball dance

Twelve-year-old Julio Aponte was not disappointed that the weather was unseasonably warm for the first-ever Snowball prom last Wednesday at Aspire of WNY's Center for Learning in Cheektowaga.
That's because he has a power wheelchair and snow has to be "shoveled all the way down to the pavement" so he can get around, he said as he waited to put on his tuxedo complete with powder blue vest and tie.

Julio, one of many CFL students with cerebral palsy, lives with his grandmother, Joan Beach, in Silver Creek and is bused 40 miles to the center.

Beach said he was so excited about the dance, he'd been "up since 4 a.m." His grandmother said: "He loves it here. He loves people. He's got a lot of health issues. He never gives up. He's a great kid."
Also bursting with anticipation about the dance was 18-year-old Robert Perkins of Buffalo, who wore a tux with a purple vest and nodded in agreement when a staffer told him, "You look gorgeous." To help pass the time before the dance, he played War with his aide, Austin Besson, using an oversize deck of cards. "I don't want to miss it," he told Besson.
The Snowball prom was the brainchild of Susan Bryant, a special-education teacher at the center. "I just felt that all students deserve to feel like a king and queen and experience the feeling of a prom and get all dressed up," she said.
Although the center serves children from preschool on up, the dance was for the more than 50 students, ages 10 to 21, in the "high school and beyond wing." While the students have different degrees of disability, most are "severe and profound," Bryant said. "A lot of our students have one-on-one-aides working with them throughout the school day," she said. Disabilities include cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, autism and neurological disorders.
All five classrooms had a prom king and queen crowned during the dance. Students went to the dance as "both couples and friends," Bryant said. "Some have chosen dates. Others are going stag."

Before the dance, the hallway of the high school wing was buzzing with activity as cosmetology students from the Harkness Career Center and Leon's Studio One waited to give girls up-dos, French braids and curls. Some got rhinestone clips; everyone got corsages or boutonnieres.
Debbie Gampietro brought 17 students and a huge bin of styling equipment from Harkness. Harkness junior Kaleena Paluszynski said it's "good experience," as she worked on one girl's hair with classmate Brittany Smith.

Bryant said prom gowns -- in lavender, pink, white, yellow and red -- were donated by many individuals; Tuxedo Junction donated the tuxedoes. Clinique provided makeup.

Students and visitors oohed and aahed at the gym, transformed into a winter wonderland with giant cutout snowflakes, overhead garlands of lights, fancy columns and balloons.

Sharon Wagener, an occupational therapist, usually builds adaptive equipment for the students. But for the dance, she had a different challenge. "I'm building an adaptive bowtie," she laughed.

After the dance began, she got teary-eyed watching the students in gowns and tuxes arrive at the dance. "Some of them I've worked with for three years." She said some students couldn't make eye contact with their own reflections in the mirror when they arrived. "For this class, it's really something to see themselves and see how they look."
Also teary-eyed was Cathy Voyer, director of the children's center. Seeing the kids in tuxes and gowns is "just overwhelming," she said. "The kids are so proud."

The music was set up by Michael Wojcik, 25, a former teacher aide who now works as a substitute as he studies occupational therapy at ECC North. His job during the dance was tech support "to make sure the iPod works." He had loaded up about two and a half hours of music including "Dreams" by the Cranberries, the Pixies' "Here Comes Your Man," and classics like the hokey pokey, the chicken dance, the macarena and the limbo. "The kids love the limbo," he said.

After the music began, the dance floor was jammed with students, staff and visitors. The hokey pokey was a big hit, especially with Dashawn Bonner, in a tux with blue vest, who sang along with microphone in hand.

Nicole Sabia of Cheektowaga said this was the first prom -- and first date -- for her 20-year-old son Gino. The family contingent included Gino's grandparents, aunt and uncle and 19-month-old sister, Kaitlyn.

Gino has cerebral palsy and transferred to Aspire from the Cantalician Center about a year ago. His mom said a classmate, 18-year-old Elise Hetrick of Niagara Falls, asked Gino to be her date to the prom. "I cried," Sabia said.

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