Not Your Average Prom: Dana Hall’s Best Buddies Prom

The lights were on in Shipley’s fencing studio, but instead of a fencing meet, a DJ was mixing tunes from Gomez and Cyrus that inspired the crowd rush out onto the floor.  He played the crowd’s favorites, the dance floor was full, and everyone had a smile on their face. People got up and sang along, chose songs, and cheered and clapped. The sing alongs were especially a hit; multiple people braved the stage and sang to their favorite songs from the 80’s to today’s top hits. Some took breaks periodically throughout the night, while others were glued to the dance floor, busting their moves and showing their talent. It was a night of no stigmas and no inhibitions.

Prom is usually the biggest and best of high school events, and everyone looks forward to it, but something was different about this night. About half of the people singing, dancing, and cheering for each other had some sort of intellectual or developmental disability.

This prom was hosted by Dana Hall’s chapter of Best Buddies, a non profit organization that matches individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities ranging from autism, to down syndrome, to learning disabilities to a peer member from a highschool or college. Best Buddies has a simple goal: for both to enjoy time together, form a friendship, and grow with each other.

These one-to-one friendships are the basis of the organization. Best Buddies, which was started by Anthony K. Shriver in 1987,  who was “first inspired his college peers to personally collaborate in expanding the realm of opportunities that persons with intellectual disabilities should experience.” Best Buddies has since sprouted all over the world to the pleasure of nearly 700,000 individuals with and without disabilities.

Here at Dana, the group has 12 pairs. Some are new this year, while others have been buddies for the full four years. The buddies are a collection of young adults that all have some varying degree of an intellectual or developmental disability. The group has events all year round, which include trips to the aquarium, dance classes, and movies, all of which promote the growing friendships to become stronger. Prom, the last of the year’s events, is a way to “culminate the year,” says Best Buddies faculty advisor Donna Corrigan.

At Dana, community service is a crucial part of the school and Best Buddies is one of the many avenues. All 10th graders must complete 20 hours of service during the year, in an effort to help build a stronger community. Graham Masiwaa, 10th grade class advisor, comments that “service forces the girls to look beyond themselves. It’s critical to learn to look beyond personal well being and care about others. Service allows the girls to engage in this process.”

The Dana Hall fencing studio is transformed into a prom venue, with balloons, blue and green streamers, cupcakes and drinks on a table in the corner, and a loud DJ. This year, Dana Hall’s chapter invited Wellesley High School’s very similar Special Friends group to join in on the festivities. The invite allowed many more attendees and kept the dance floor hopping. “For many of these buddies, it’s their first and only prom,” says Corrigan. Therefore, the chapter tried to make it as memorable as possible, with the perfect ambiance, decorations, lights, and music. Susannah Phillips, the head of WHS’s Special Friends, commented on the energy of the night: “everyone was dancing and I could really tell the buddies were having a great time. All the effort we put into setting up was worth it.”

As Juliana Miller ‘13, the president of Dana Hall’s chapter puts it, “it’s a great way to close the year, hang with your friends, and just get all dressed up and excited.” The chapter tries to model this prom so it is close to what a typical prom would be like. Yet, there are obvious differences that make this prom even more meaningful. “I do Best Buddies because I love the people and the energy of the people that do it,” continues Miller. “I’ve learned to look beyond appearence. Some people may judge someone with dissabilties because they can’t do the same things, but I learned they just do things differently and that doesn’t make them lesser.”

Best Buddies strives to make an impactful change on the person with disabilities, and in the process do the same for the peer member. Emily Kelman ‘14, a peer member since her freshman year, has a similar point of view. “Best Buddies makes you realize that people discriminate before they make a friendship. I learned to try not to from my three years in Best Buddies, and have found my friendships in and out of this chapter have deepened and grown.”

Sarah Markowitz, a 21-year-old, has been Kelman’s buddy since freshman year. Markowitz struggles with common social interactions and can sometimes be erratic. The two have become self-described best friends and over the past three years, have grown to know each other very well. The two go to the movies often, go to lunch, or hang out at each other’s houses watching movies and talking about friends, boys, and favorite singers. “I love Emily Kelman. She is my best friend,” Markowitz says, with a shy smile, as if admitting a secret. Kelman reciprocate the feelings, smiling when told Markowitz’s response. “I love her too. She really is great and I couldn’t have asked for a better friend.” This friendship isn’t like Kelman’s typical friendship. Sometimes, it’s difficult to communicate and Markowitz can be erratic. But that hasn’t changed the commitment and deepness of the friendship. The obvious love between the two shows how the friendship has grown over the past three years, from when they met at the meet and greet event in the fencing studio in September 2010. “She’s one of those people who lights up a room and one who can make anyone and everyone laugh,” Kelman comments.

At prom, Markowitz was a frequent participator in the sing alongs, belting out both ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” and Selena Gomez’s “Who Says.” Kelman watched on the dance floor, swaying to the rhythm of the song and watching proudly as Markowtiz confidently sang. Best Buddies has been a facilitator for this compassionate friendship, and the organization tries to do this all over the world.

While prom marks the end of the Chapter’s year, the buddies and members are still eager for next year. Many still keep in touch over the summer, and hang out too. Kelman is sure she will keep in touch. “Sarah and I talk almost everyday and I’m sure nothing will change over the summer.” Thus Best Buddies is not just a club at Dana, and the matches are not just a mandatory pairing. It’s become a facilitator for real and compassionate friendships. “That’s really the goal,” Miller adds.

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