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For 135 with special needs, church’s prom is a hit

LAKEWOOD RANCH — Sixteen-year-old Rosa Moreno took off early from Palmetto High School on Friday so she could get her hair done for her first prom.

Somewhere around 5 p.m., dark-haired Rosa slipped on a strapless pink gown with silver sequins across the front. A gold necklace with a round diamond completed her look.

She walked into the room where her siblings, Christopher, 23; Jasmine, 21; and Julio, 19, were waiting for her. She heard them scream in unison as if she were a rock star.

Three hours later, dancing to disco under silver stars hanging from the ceiling, Rosa and her high school pals, Mercedes Matthews and Brittney Swilley, couldn’t stop smiling.

For this was a special prom where no one cared that Rosa’s speech and cognitive abilities are impaired or that she scooted on her stomach as a toddler and couldn’t walk by herself until she was 8.

This was “The Night With The Stars,” a prom put on by Faith Christian Church on Lorraine Road for 135 people with a special need or disability.

For Rosa’s mother, Adeline Moreno, who watched her three older children all attend junior and senior proms, seeing Rosa get to go to one herself where she wouldn’t feel out of place was hard for her to describe.

“I am in awe,” said Adeline Moreno, who wore a gown and attended with Rosa. “Rosa has always looked beautiful, but tonight she is glowing. This has fulfilled the desires of my heart.

“I wanted her to go to prom, but I didn’t want her to be teased,” Moreno added. “When I heard what this church was doing, we had to come.”

When Rosa saw Brittney’s antique white silk gown, she cried out, “I like it!”

Jennifer Stevens, the head of the special education department at Palmetto High, said the three girls talked for weeks about the prom.

“They will always remember this night,” said Stevens, who also attended the prom.

Besides Palmetto High and other Manatee County schools, attendees came from Pinnacle Academy in Lakewood Ranch, Easter Seals, Children’s Haven, Manasota ARC and others. Alternative Care, a Bradenton organization, sent 35.

About 500 attended the event, when caretakers and church volunteers were included.

Hours went into decorating to make a dreamy Hollywood Oscar night feel. There were cameras flashing as the prom-goers made their way into the church.

“Really cool,” said church member and prom volunteer Rhonda Cutrona. “Look at that red carpet.”

Cutrona said she got goose bumps when she saw the faces of the attendees as they arrived.

“I got chills,” Cutrona said. “They were all like, ‘Look at me!’ The guys got crowns and the girls got tiaras. They got gift bags and photographs of themselves.”

The idea for “The Night With The Stars” came from Faith Christian church member Sarah Zanoni, who saw a video about a church in Ohio that hosted a prom for 800 with special needs.

“The church members said they did it because, with the economy the way it is, it was time they focused on people who have had it rough every day and get overlooked in society,” Zanoni said. “Their idea was to celebrate a good thing, not dwell on bad things. I thought that was awesome.”

Zanoni approached her church leadership and got the idea approved, with the understanding that she would have to raise the bulk of the funds for it.

“The way this turned out was beyond my wildest expectations,” said church elder Paul Palmer, who threw his support behind the event.

Once the word got out, a volunteer spirit fueled a giving cornucopia. A large retailer donated gift cards. A supermarket donated food. A department store donated the necklaces for the women.

A beauty school donated hair cuts and hairdos. Thirteen other salons also helped free of charge.

Numerous thrift outlets and other churches donated suits for the men and dresses for the women. A bakery gave 150 cupcakes. A couple with a catering background donated their labor and got food at special prices. A DJ did the prom for free, as did a photographer who will produce DVDs for the attendees.

A local florist donated 400 carnations which church volunteers made into boutonnieres and corsages. People donated shoes, dresses, shirts and T-shirts. Even Cutrona’s daughter got caught up in the spirit and donated her old prom dress.

Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 708-7917.

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