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A special night for special students

It’s a rite of passage, and perhaps one of the most troubling problems in a young man’s life: finding a date to the high school prom.

Matthew Pearce, 18, of Orchard Park, had his sights set on a classmate – Dina Phillips, also 18. He mustered up the courage to ask her to Friday night’s dance. It would be their first date. And luckily for Pearce, she said yes.

But if it hadn’t been for the efforts of a dedicated group of parents, Pearce and Phillips probably wouldn’t have gone to the prom at all.

Pearce, an Erie 2 BOCES student, has Down syndrome. He could have attended Orchard Park High School’s prom, but he doesn’t attend classes with Orchard Park students and doesn’t fit in with them. That’s why a group of Erie 2 BOCES parents paid out of pocket to put on a prom themselves, inviting special-education students from school districts across the county.

The parents organized a “dress drive” to provide dresses for girls, gave away corsages and boutonnieres at the door and fed all guests, free of charge. The event was Friday night at Thomas E. Tehan Post, American Legion, on Electric Avenue in Blasdell. There was a DJ, a photographer and decorations.

“We just felt it was something that every kid should have,” said Joanne Brawdy, a parent organizer, whose son Colin, 21, is graduating this year. He is autistic.

Some students and parents arrived in style, stepping out of limousines after attending preprom parties.

Gary and Amy Schoenthaler, who also helped organize the prom, were dressed for the occasion, greeting guests at the door and showing them inside. Their son Brett, 20, is autistic, as well. They said Brett hardly slept Thursday night because he was so excited.

Inside, the students’ teachers and other volunteers socialized with the students, took their pictures and danced along with them. Holly Bernys of Depew is a speech therapist at Erie 2 BOCES and teaches her high school students about social language.

“This is a perfect opportunity for them to kind of practice the social stuff we’ve been learning at school,” Bernys said.

Sue Brazill teaches a life skills class at Erie 2 BOCES. “My job is to get them ready to transition from school to the world of work,” she said.

“They have been so excited,” Brazill said. “For days, they could think of nothing else. It’s the biggest thing that’s happened to them in a long time. It makes them feel like they’re high school students like their sisters and their brothers.”

Victoria Langes, 17, of Hamburg, was attending her first prom. “I was shaking, but I was excited,” she said about her preprom nervousness.

She said she had fun preparing for the dance. “I picked out my dress,” said Victoria, who suffers from a learning disability.

“I went to my aunt’s hair salon, and she did my hair and my nails and my makeup.”

Pearce’s mother, Mary Ann, beamed as she watched Matthew dance with Dina. “This is an incredible opportunity for our kids. ... Many of them have problems getting out into a crowd and socializing, and the fact that they were excited to do this is really a big deal.”

Gary Schoenthaler, a lieutenant in the New York State Department of Corrections, was glad to have such a great turnout – 85 students, according to volunteers at the door.

“Hopefully somebody steps up next year and keeps on going with it,” he said.