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Special Needs Prom touches those involved

EAST MANATEE — Everyone was helping and Theresa Gilleard wanted to help, too.

As a jewelry distributor, she realized she could donate a necklace and bracelet to each of the 40 women who attended the first local Prom for Manatee and Sarasota Residents with Special Needs hosted last spring by Gilleard’s church, Faith Christian Church.

What Gilleard didn’t expect is what she got back.

“No one could have walked into that event that night and walked out untouched,” Gilleard said Monday. “The prom-goers’ eyes just sparkled. I felt so much love.”

Gilleard has donated 50 more pieces this year for the second prom for area residents with special needs.

Many others are donating time and resources — everything from gowns and suits to food and beverages — to get what Gilleard got, the chance to make a fairy tale night for someone who may have not had an easy life.

Faith Christian Church is once again hosting the prom from 7 to 9:30 p.m. Friday at the church, 5215 Lorraine Road.

Like last year, some of the guests will arrive in a limo, courtesy of transportation companies from the area, said Sarah Zanoni, one of the event founders and organizers.

Leah Barger, 19, will be attending her second prom, her second chance to dress up and feel beautiful, said her mother, Kim Barger.

The women and men already had a clothes fitting about a week ago for the big event.

“She was absolutely thrilled and so excited that people would take the time to put together such an incredible party for her and her friends,” Barger said.

“It was like the prom-goers were on the red carpet and were all treated with such dignity,” Barger said.

More than 50 volunteers make the guests feel special from the time they show up, Zanoni said.

“At a traditional prom, these kids and adults don’t normally get this attention,” Barger said.

Leah Barger attends Ava Maria Preparatory School near Myakka City. The school caters to individuals with special needs, Kim Barger said.

“Leah has epilepsy and cerebral palsy and a cognitive disability,” Barger said. “That night, the men were very handsome and the women were beautiful and that is what mattered. Not one person didn’t have a huge smile on his or her face. It was absolutely magical.”

Throughout the year, the Bargers watched a DVD of the prom, made and donated by Zanoni and her volunteers.

“Leah will get all dressed up and have her hair and nails done and spend time with friends,” Barger said. “It allows them to show their beauty and that doesn’t happen every day.”

Once again, this special prom will have a movie theme.

“We want to create the atmosphere of a movie premier,” Zanoni said.

“They will get the trophies. This is their night, a night we all work to say, ‘You are the stars.’”

There are still unmet needs for transportation, attire, salon services, food and photography, Zanoni said. For more information, or to help, call Zanoni at (941) 809-4061.

Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 748-0411, ext. 6686.