By Anne Marie Amacher
The Catholic Messenger
DAVENPORT – Youths from Hand in Hand and Assumption High School danced the night away during a prom celebration May 16.
Hand in Hand offers programs and services for children with and without special needs from ages 6 weeks to 21 years old. The organization also offers some activities for adults with disabilities, according to its website.
Prom-goers ages 15 and older attended the big dance at St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Davenport, said Amy Steil, director of the Bettendorf-based Hand in Hand. This was the third year for the prom.
“We do activities year round for children and young adults. Our activities provide opportunities for all children, regardless of ability, and mirror activities offered in the community. And we do it because prom is fun,” Steil said.
A few years ago, Assumption High School’s Key Club began building a strong partnership with Hand in Hand, “even planning and coordinating a teen night at Assumption for our participants and assisting with our annual fundraiser.”
Assumption junior Julia Field got involved with Hand in Hand as a second-grader attending Lourdes Catholic School in Bettendorf. Her teacher was a founder of the organization. “I have been volunteering every since.”
For the first prom Julia helped decorate with a friend and stayed. The next year Julia brought more friends. This year she brought 14 Assumption students. The prom outgrew its original space at the Bettendorf Community Center and moved to St. Mathew’s.
“In the past, AHS students have helped with set-up and volunteered during the dance. This year, students volunteered during the dance. The Key Club’s job at prom was to really just liven up the environment. We were there to encourage people to dance and have fun. However, the Hand-in-Hand kids ended up being the real life of the party,” Julia said.
They danced the “classics,” like the Macarena, YMCA and Thriller. One prom-goer knew every move to the Thriller dance. “He was more than happy to lead all the AHS students. Assumption boys were even slow-dancing with Hand-in-Hand girls. That absolutely made their night.”
Julia said that by working with students with special needs “I have learned to humble myself and realize what is truly important in life. Especially as high schoolers it is easy to get wrapped up in all the superficial parts of life. However, with an event like this, one is able to quickly reevaluate what is taking priority in his or her life and recenter his or herself.”
Junior Emma Nagle has worked with Hand in Hand several times and thought the best parts of prom night were dancing with students and having a great time enjoying music. Also, she enjoyed watching a few of the girls with special needs stand up on stage and perform awesome moves.
“It was great to see people smile as they took pictures at the photo booth or light up when their favorite song came on. In particular, the girls were so excited when (songs performed by) Taylor Swift played. The entire night was a blast; everyone had a great time,” Emma said.
Emma learned that students with special needs “are just like us, having a good time at a staple high school event. Following the Hand in Hand students, I learn to embrace every moment in life. God can show me so many beautiful things through different people and experiences as long as I keep my eyes and heart open.”
Junior Bridget Schnell said Julia had been contact by Hand in Hand to help since a previous teen night had been such a success. “Key Club members loved the Hand in Hand teen night, so they were more than willing to participate in this event.”
Hand in Hand had simply requested that Key Club members dance with the teens and make sure they had a good time. “They wanted the place to have a positive environment with up-beat kids willing to dance all night,” Bridget said. “It’s such a good feeling to see the teens express themselves and not be afraid to dance their hearts away because they are surrounded by such positive, supporting people.”
Through the years, Bridget said she has learned so much from helping out at Hand in Hand. Those who volunteered at the prom said “they learned that the best way to let yourself have fun is if you just express yourself like the Hand in Hand teens so comfortably did,” Bridget continued. “They also learned that these teens just want to have a great prom and want great friends like the rest of us. A few volunteers walked away from the dance texting some of the teens they met.”
Steil said, “We feel so lucky to have the opportunity to work with these amazing volunteers. They brought energy and animation to the event. To stand back and watch these students dancing and laughing with the children and young adults who participate in Hand in Hand was just plain fun. They really made the event really special.”