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‘Your heart just overflows’ | STARS shine during annual special needs prom

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2019 STARS Prom

Celeste Holden, a sixth grader at Denham Springs Junior High, is named Queen of the STARS Prom. Her mother, Amanda Holden, celebrates with her.

DENHAM SPRINGS -- Charlotte White can still see the tears running down the father’s cheek.

It was at Walker Freshman High about 10 years ago, when White organized the first-ever Special Teens Among Real Scenes (STARS) Prom for students with special needs.

White and her small team “hardly had any money” for the endeavor, she said, but they did what they could. They shaped gold paper into stars and spray painted them silver, they blew up some balloons and hung them in various spots, and a few volunteers cooked and served the guests food.

But the lack of hoopla didn’t seem to bother anyone who attended that first year, especially the father White recalled coming with his special needs daughter.

A decade later, White still remembers seeing him get emotional as he watched his daughter. It was a moment he never thought he’d see her experience, but there she was, having the time of her life. He couldn’t help but tear up.

“That right then sealed it for me,” White said. “Whatever I have to do, as long as I’m teaching, there will be a prom.”

It’s been a “labor of love” since then, and White said it still continues to grow a decade later.

This year was no exception, as around 300 guests showed up in their prom best for the 10th Annual STARS Prom at Forrest Grove Plantation in Denham Springs on Friday, May 10.

2019 STARS Prom

Denham Springs High student Ella Otken (left), dressed as Alice from Alice in Wonderland, dances the Soulja Boy dance with Meghan Burns, 22 and a graduate of Denham Springs High, at the STARS Prom at Forrest Grove.

The “Enchanted Forest” prom was open to Livingston Parish special needs students in grades 6 and higher, as well as alumni of the Livingston Parish Public Schools system. Special guests arrived in their stunning dresses and sharp tuxedos with their dates, parents and others, all ready for a good time.

And what a time they had.

During the event, participants were treated to all the regular amenities of a typical prom, including refreshments, a buffet, the crowning of a king and queen, and a dance floor — which was packed for almost the entire night.

Music by Lady Gaga, Drake, the Village People and others blared through the speakers for nearly three hours, and an extra wave of energy jolted the room every time Bruno Mars’ popular party anthem “Uptown Funk” played.

Students from Live Oak Junior High’s REACH Club and Walker Freshman High’s Serve Club volunteered during the event, while theatre students from Springfield High and Denham Springs High showed up in their elaborate costumes to interact with the guests.

Forrest Grove Plantation was so packed that White feels they’ll soon reach their limit.

“Every year this gets a little bigger and better,” said White, a special education teacher at Walker Freshman High. “We’re going to outgrow this place one day.”

Cameron Duncan, president of Live Oak High’s REACH Club, was one of dozens of regular students who came to the prom with special needs dates. She — like almost everyone who attends — never wants it to end.

2019 STARS Prom

Summer Allen (right) dances with Springfield High student Noah Bonura, dressed the Prince from Cinderella, at the STARS Prom at the Forrest Grove Plantation.

“This is so much more fun than any other prom I go to,” she said. “No one cares here. You just want to dance and have a great time all night. We always do.”

The annual gala has become one of the most popular events for STARS, White said, for the special guests but also for their parents, who get to see their children “dance the night away.”

Theresa Kennedy, whose son Michael Paul has come to the prom for four years, lauded White and her team for their efforts in putting on the event. She said it has made a noticeable impact on her 22-year-old son, who will graduate from Walker High this week.

“It’s been fantastic,” she said. “I could see him come out of his shell a little bit being around these kids. It’s a great social event he can attend every year. He loves it.”

The prom holds extra meaning for Theresa and her husband Bubba, who have watched their son be crowned king not once, but three times, including this year alongside Queen Celeste Holden. Theresa said she still has the crowns and sashes from the previous proms.

“It’s wonderful, it’s overwhelming,” she said. “Your heart just overflows to see him have such a good time and be able to even attend events like this.”

White said she has no plans to ever stop putting on the prom, saying it gives her students and others like them a place “to be themselves.” Though the prom has grown much over the years, she hopes it will continue to do so, and she said alumni are always welcome back for the fun-filled night. 

“I will do anything I can to help these kids’ lives be better,” White said. “They teach me so much more than I could ever teach them. To do that and share that time, I can’t even describe it. And I’m fortunate to work with a lot of teachers in this parish who feel the same way.”

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