Abilities First Holds First Spring Prom Since 2019

POUGHKEEPSIE – Abilities First held its Spring Prom for students ages 12-21 with developmental disabilities on Friday, May 31, a vital, heartwarming opportunity to enjoy a high school tradition featuring celebration, music, dancing and camaraderie with friends and loved ones.

Abilities First, a nonprofit organization, provides people who face developmental challenges and their families support to attain independence, self-determination, integration and acceptance by others through education, exploration and experience. The Spring Prom, for students who attend Abilities First’s school campuses in LaGrange in Dutchess County and New Windsor in Orange County, was started in 2014 but paused during the Covid pandemic. Members of Abilities First’s Board of Directors, donors, faculty and staff also attended.

“What a special afternoon and event,” said JoAnn Parker, Director of Development for the Foundation for Abilities First N.Y. “The return of this long-treasured tradition represents a wonderful milestone for our 23 participating students and families. This truly is a dream come true for students to fully experience the festive pageantry of a prom.”

The Spring Prom was significantly underwritten through the generous support of Poughkeepsie Elks Club No. 275, which again this year kindly donated use of its venue, as well as the buffet dinner, disc jockey services, event souvenirs and flowers including boutonnieres. Jane Anderson, a trustee and former past exalted ruler of the lodge, is coordinator of the Elks National Foundation, through which local Elks members apply for grants to help communities. She said support of the Abilities First Spring Prom is one of the Elks’ signature community-service and philanthropic efforts each year.

“We want to give back to our community, to give these young adults as many life experiences as possible,” she said. “It’s very touching. Originally, we heard students wanted a Prom and the Elks were able to make it happen. We’re thrilled, excited and wanted to make a good time for these kids.”

“The incredible generosity of the Elks goes above and beyond,” Parker said, who noted that the Elks’ philanthropy was supplemented by funding from the Foundation for Abilities First N.Y. “When a community comes together for a community like Abilities First, we are so grateful for the commitment that folks make that enhances a program for the community. It truly exemplifies the spirit of community partnership.”

The event had all the special touches of a Prom. Students were resplendent in formal wear and elegant dresses, with carefully done makeup, coiffed hair, corsages and boutonnieres. Abilities First faculty and staff helped students get ready for the event, then joined in on the fun. Decorations included fresh flowers on tables and balloon arrangements, while a photo booth provided instant keepsakes.

Town of Poughkeepsie resident Peter Kase said this year’s event was the fourth Abilities First Prom his daughter Julianne has attended. “I was talking in the kitchen with my wife about whether we would bring her to the Prom. Julie was in her bedroom in her bed. She turned and stared at us, and I asked her if she wanted to go to the Prom. She said yes, yes, yes! Julie thinks it’s the best thing in the world. She’ll be on the dance floor the entire time; all these kids will be,” he said.

In addition to the Elks and Parker, the Prom’s coordination was led by Abilities First LaGrange campus Principal Georgia Patchen, high school teacher Nancy Besio and art teacher Rona Mannain. Andrea Hagan, a community volunteer, led the decorating along with a team of volunteers.

Besio, an Abilities First special education teacher for 28 years, teaches students ages 15-21 and was out on the dance floor assisting students. “We just wanted to give them a special night and a Prom, just like students their age,” she said. “All of us worked together to make this happen. Everyone was excited. We’re here because of our love and care for these kids.”

Also volunteering were a total of eight students from Arlington, Highland and Our Lady of Lourdes High Schools, who danced and mingled with attendees to add to the event’s inclusiveness. “We’re here to have a fun time and give back to the community,” said Andrew Goetz, an Arlington High School sophomore. Salmah Suleiman, an 11th grader at Highland High School, said “We’re here to help everyone have the same experience that we received at our Prom.”

Patricia Larkin, a seven-year supporter of Abilities First and a kindergarten teacher in Orange County schools for 25 years, was on hand as well. “These families need support and an event like this warms my heart,” she said. “To see these kids have a chance to expand their horizons and give them this opportunity is fabulous.”

Dutchess County Executive Sue Serino stopped in to celebrate with the students. “I love this organization,” she said of Abilities First. “This Prom is so important. High schools have Proms, so it’s nice that these kids have a prom. Everyone looks beautiful – it’s just kids being kids!”

Overall, the event was a sensation enjoyed by all. “The Spring Prom is a great opportunity for our students and families,” Parker said. “Our schools check the same boxes as community schools, and a Prom helps do that. We have parties and themed events, but Prom is a whole other level of engagement.”

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