Saturday, January 11, 2014

Sweetheart of a Dance


 I just spent the day with Teen Volunteers from Norman North, and alumns who are now at OU or OSU or Rose State University...students who understand how important it is to give pay rent on all the gifts we've received and often take for granted. I've worked for over 30 years with young people volunteering at Special Olympics. We attend Area and State games. We also host our own semi-formal dance, the Sweetheart Dance, with Special Olympics athletes as guests of honor. This tradition means so much to me and to my volunteers.

Today, 37 high school students gave up a considerable chunk of their Saturday to volunteer. I am in awe of their work. 

This piece was written in 2003, about one of our Sweetheart Dances...The students named here are now adults, with all the responsibilities of adulthood.. But for me, they'll always be teenagers, creating a magic experience for others. We have our date for this year's dance, and I hope to invite some of these 'kids' back.

“This feels so good it hurts.” 

What was this father of a teen-aged mentally-disabled son talking about? Something most of us take for granted for our children. His son was attending a semi-formal dance. There he was, dancing with beautiful girls, all dolled up in slinky, sparkling gowns. He was laughing, having the time of his life. He was posing for candid photos, gulping soft drinks quickly to cut his thirst so he could return to the crowded dance floor. Pretty typical sights for those of us who have attended our share of high school dances, right? Not to this laughing son, or his father who stood next to me with his arms wrapped around his chest.

 Recently, Norman North High School Special Olympics parents and Teen Volunteers joined forces to host the third annual Sweetheart Dance, held in the hearts-bedecked Commons on a cool Saturday night. Unlike other school dances, the invitation list was quite exclusive: Special Olympics athletes from our two high schools and four middle schools, and Teen Volunteers who had worked with these athletes at Special Olympics events.

This father watched in awe as his son, so handsome in his three-piece suit and dress shirt, laughed and flirted. He watched his son participate in his first school dance—and this young man was 18 years old. Never before had father and son felt welcome; Homecomings, Proms had passed them by.  Nearly 140 young people danced the entire evening, never sitting down, never leaving the dance floor. I watched with pride as my volunteers, once again, proved to me why they are precious beyond words.

One athlete bounced over to a sponsor and smiled, “I must be so pretty tonight, because all these boys keep asking me to dance.” Of course she was pretty! Of course she should be asked to dance. Here, she was. Here, this dance was in her honor. She and the other athletes were treated by their peers with friendship and respect, not stared at with curiosity and disdain.

Michael, one of my Teen Volunteers, and a parent compiled an invitation list of every Special Olympics athlete in our district, and all the volunteers. Mike designed the invitations, many of which were saved and brought to the dance. I suspect some parents brought them in suspicion, fearing the invitation was a mistake, or worse, a hoax. Mike arranged for the DJ, and learned more about business dealings and school finances than he ever wanted to know! His mother donated money to cover half of the cost of the DJ. Parent donations placed in a paper cup at the door that night covered the other half.

For weeks before the dance, my room became the headquarters for decorations and meetings. ShaLyn accidentally spilled red paint on my carpet, Laneesha was on scissors patrol. Mike held meetings to talk to the volunteers about how to dress: fancy dress clothes or Sunday best; how to act: natural and friendly; what was expected: dance every dance with the athletes, talk, visit, mingle. No wallflowers allowed—volunteers or athletes. He also made sure volunteers brought cookies for refreshments.

On the night of the dance, he and Chase and Preston arrived over an hour early—they beat me there--to transform our Commons into a Valentine delight. Jessica’s mom came to help—she wanted in on the fun. Boys wore their dress shirts and ties, Nathan came in his good sweater. Girls all came in jeans and sweatshirts, carrying their dresses and killer strappy sandals. With minutes to go before our guests arrived, Katie and Arian led them as they ducked into the restrooms and put on their gowns and shoes, retouched their makeup. And we were ready!

Over 60 athletes and 60 volunteers spent the next three hours dancing. Stephanie, a recent grad, returned bringing her new boyfriend with her. Everyone was there to have a good time. Nick arrived late because he had spent the day at a Speech and Debate contest and had just gotten home. He quickly made up for lost time, diving into the middle of the fun, his dark curls bobbing up and down. 

Unlike many school dances, where parents are eager to disappear, and are expected to disappear, many parents and teachers sat at tables around the dance floor. We visited, watched, occasionally danced. It seemed important to us all to be there, to watch and participate. Our school custodian, Kenny, stood to the side, leaning on his broom, smiling. He comes every year and refuses to report his hours  to be paid for his hours—he comes to have fun, waits for the last of us to leave, then locks up the school. We looked on as a group of teenagers thoroughly enjoyed themselves together.

I tell my volunteers all Special Olympics athletes are like us—they want to be loved, they want to have friends, they want the opportunity to make a good life. That evening, my kids showed me they got the message—loud and clear. So many of them came up to me to tell me they had never had that much fun at a dance, no matter the elaborate preparations and expensive trips to the salon, no matter the fancy dinners or the stretch limos. This dance, with its cardboard painted hearts dangling from fishing line, with its cookies and soda pop refreshments, meant more to them than any other dance. Here they could have fun, not worrying about what impression they make, whether anyone was watching. Even the DJs, unfriendly and business-like at the beginning of the evening, repeatedly told Mike how much they enjoyed themselves, how they sensed the climate of friendship and respect. They begged to be invited back next year. 

Julie, in her beautiful black dress with crinoline petticoats, her hair flowing nearly to her knees, said, “I can’t dance very well, but here it’s about having fun, not having to look cool. I can be myself here. I love this dance.” She was one of several—Mike, Preston, Chase, and Nick included, I had to shoo out the door thirty minutes after the dance was over—they wanted to stay longer!

So, to echo that daddy’s words, it felt so good it hurt. 

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