To most average high schoolers, prom is the culmination of the school year, a time to make memories and cherish crushes. But for anyone living with an intellectual or developmental disability, that time-honored tradition might never come, with the logistics of such celebrations growing more complicated by the year.
That’s why, for some 11 years, Greater Pasadena Young Life Capernaum has held a glittering prom called “Evening of Dreams” for young people with such disabilities, giving them the same chance to gather with peers and bask memorably in a true prom experience in a safe and loving environment.
The traditional celebration recently thrilled some 65 attendees and 30 high school volunteers from all over the Greater Pasadena area at La Cañada Presbyterian Church, despite spring thunderstorms that threatened to soak the elegantly dressed partygoers. Thankfully, the rain hit only the red carpet in late afternoon and sunshine followed, just in time for the guests’ arrival. The young men and women excitedly descended from a Lincoln stretch limousine, reserved just for the occasion, to wend their way up the red carpet and strike a pose for cameras held by friends and family members.
“We were so thankful for the clear skies. It was just a great event,” said Amy Nielsen, Greater Pasadena Capernaum area director. “Every student was beaming and happy, and every parent was so proud — it was the best parts of a prom, without any of the drama.”
Young Life, a faith-based youth ministry organization, began in the early 1940s to help engage adolescents in organized activities, and Young Life Capernaum was launched to create inclusive programs between typical teenagers and young adults with disabilities. Greater Pasadena Capernaum meets twice monthly and aims to create strong bonds and friendship opportunities among the teens and young adults throughout the area. “Capernaum” refers to the town, cited in Chapter 2 of the Gospel of St. Mark, where four able-bodied men carry a friend with a disability to meet Jesus.
Over the years, the local “Evening of Dreams” has proved to be THE place to be.
Some revelers dressed in flowing taffeta, while others opted for tuxes or trendy eveningwear. But no matter their attire, the kids arrived to whistles, hugs and high-fives from their peers.
Kathy Leon, whose son Michael, 21, has been coming to the youth group since he was in middle school, chatted with other parents and greeted her son’s friends. Leon, a coach in the AYSO VIP league and the local Special Olympics, has known many of the kids in the community for years.
“This is my son’s community and his family, where all his friends are. Here he gets to be independent, this is what he has all on his own,” said Leon, noting that while she and her son participate together in many soccer and Special Olympics events, the Capernaum prom is a place where he stays alone with his friends.
“Capernaum is a place where he’s unconditionally loved and accepted for who he is and where people are so happy to see him,” she noted. “And to see other high schoolers and young college kids here giving their time and friendship, not just here but at events throughout the year, is really touching.”
While the kids took photos, gave out greetings with plenty of hugs and admired each other’s fancy clothes, professional sketch artists stood by to provide them with a memory and keepsake to take home. The main hall, decorated in gold and white balloons and table settings of white flowers, awaited the crowd for a sit-down pasta dinner.
Christopher Mikuni, 23, of Altadena, said he loves coming to the prom and seeing all of his friends.
“I love coming. It changed my life here … meeting new people, making a bunch of friends,” Mikuni said. For him, the evening was somewhat bittersweet, as he is set to leave in the fall to attend Fresno State. It might’ve been his last prom ever, but Mikuni wasn’t going to let that get him down.
“My favorite part of prom is dancing!” he said, making his way through the hall with a girl in a flowing dress, Sarah Broderson, close by his side.
Outside, Mikuni’s mom, Pat VanDerVeer, chatted happily with the parents she’s bonded with over the years. It was a little bittersweet for her, too.
“Capernaum is the nexus of all the groups for kids with special needs. … Over the years, they might be in different therapies, sports, classes, but they all get to see each other when they come here. And I have a very outgoing child; he loves it because he sees all of his friends, and the support here is amazing,” VanDerVeer noted. “[The volunteers] all come with total love and acceptance and just to have a really great time. … It’s this perfect synergy of kids having a good time and total acceptance by everyone around them. And they dance like crazy.”
Young Life’s Capernaum Project came to fruition in the 1980s, when a youth group volunteer leader discovered that there weren’t many social activities organized for young adults with intellectual and physical disabilities. To date, it remains one of the few ministries focused on providing social activities and building relationships with disabled teens and young adults.
Pasadena resident Marian Chen, whose son Isaac Chia sat inside at a full table, ready for his three-course meal, lingered outside the event to chat happily with another couple.
She spoke of how meaningful the prom is to Isaac, who, although he might be considered non-verbal, loves to be around people his own age.
“He absolutely loves it, he never wants to leave when he’s here. He loves the music and everyone is dancing and having fun. … Everyone here — the high schoolers, the college kids — they’re so uninhibited and natural,” Chen said. “Everyone is natural and organic; this is a place where no one feels like they have special needs. That’s how I feel, too, when I’m here, like this is how the world is supposed to be.”
Chen noted that while children with intellectual disabilities are often given a lot of socializing opportunities while they’re in school, once they age out of high school those chances become few and far between.
“Sure, when he was in elementary school he had a ton of friends, but as they get older it gets harder. They don’t really hang out, so this is all he’s got. There’s a whole population of kids out there that really need this,” she added.
Nielsen, who organizes and fundraises for all Capernaum’s annual activities, said the group is always looking for more high school- and college-age volunteers.
Their events rely on a buddy system of sorts, and the kids really become fond of each other, she noted.
“I think our prom represents connection and hope for families who have a child with a disability,” Nielsen noted. “For most high school kids, as they get older the opportunities go off like a fountain. But for someone with a disability, often we find that once they leave school their circle of relationships becomes smaller; those kinds of opportunities are a bit inversed.
“For the parents, we often hear how lonely a lot of parents feel facing the reality of their child’s future. For a parent to see a huge group of people who want to be a part of their children’s life, who enjoy the relationships built with them, we hope that it’s restorative,” Nielsen said.
For those at Capernaum, the prom comes just once a year, and attendees were determined to make the night count.
“Turn up that music!” someone yelled, and the DJ obliged, cranking up the well-crafted list of pop and classic tunes as guests tore themselves away from a colorful, doughnut-laden dessert table and hurried to the crowded dance floor.
To learn more about volunteer or donation opportunities at Capernaum, visit gpylcapernaum.younglife.org.