St. Patrick’s day was the theme of this Saturday’s Friends In Service and Hospitality prom for students with disabilities at Nazareth Academy,an annual event and a collaboration between Nazareth and Aspire of Illinois.

Janet Rausch of Nazareth campus ministry held a welcome meeting and prayer with volunteers before the event, which began in 2012 and has grown in participants and volunteers each year.

“Our students love this,” Rausch said. “This is a form of service that builds relationships.”

She said there are about 100 volunteers who are students, parents and members of the community, and typically 40 to 50 guests. Junior high or high school students from Aspire are welcome to attend the prom.

“We need to practice good peer modeling behavior which includes having fun with your buddy, dancing, playing games and just hanging out like you would with a friend,” said special education teacher Sara Pendergrass.

Pendergrass also instructed the students to remember their buddy may have trouble with abstract concepts and they may need to be more direct. She encouraged volunteers to ignore small things that may go wrong and concentrate on having a fun experience.

Participants were given a flower and had their picture taken with their assigned buddies. The school dining hall and hallways were decorated with a St. Patrick’s Day theme. Games and a dress up photo booth were set up for those who wanted a break from dancing.

“I volunteered for the photo booth because I love the experience,” said senior Jazzmin Martinez. “Last year I was a floater and did different things. This prom offers a different perspective on life.”

First to arrive on the dance floor was participant Isaac Ziebell.

“I am practicing my dancing so I can dance with my girlfriend. I really love the music,” he said.

While most guests spent some time on the dance floor, Brandon Meyer spent the evening drawing.

“I like drawing, it’s fun,” Meyer explained and then added, “I don’t know how to dance.”

Nazareth Academy emphases four pillars to students, Scholarship, Service, Spirit and Unity. Principal Therese Hawkins said the prom is a celebration of those pillars.

“We talk a lot about the four pillars,” Hawkins said. “This really celebrates the pillar of unity. We talk a lot about working together and living together and bringing people together and this event gives students a chance to welcome in people with disabilities.”

Many of the student volunteers said they have people with disabilities in their families and this inspired them to give back and attend the Naz Prom as a buddy.

“I have a little sister with disabilities,” said Gilliam Alberto. “She’s 5, and I would like her to have something like this when she grows up.”

Some students get more out of the evening than a chance to make a friend for the night. Brianna Thompson said one of her friend’s brother has disabilities and she’s considering studying special education in college, so she is trying to spend more time around people with disabilities.

Another student, Christine Esposito, said this is her second time volunteering.

“I have a cousin who has autism,” Esposito said. “I’m always around her and people with autism bring joy to my life.”

Hawkins said comments like those aren’t a surprise to her.

“I often say I don’t know who benefits more tonight, the guests or the students who work the event,” she said.

Students also had the opportunity to play card games, bean bag toss and color St. Patrick’s Day pictures with their buddies.

“This is a cellphone free event because we want the volunteer students to be completely engaged with their buddies, not looking at their phones,” said Rausch.

“I’m taking a break from dancing to color a few pictures. Everything here is a lot of fun,” said Mark Matyskela, who colored some St. Patrick’s Day pictures along with his buddies Olivia Pasinski and Maria Murphy.

Students on the steering committee created gift bags to hand out containing gift cards, St. Patrick’s Day themed socks, candy and other treats donated by the community.

The king and queen of the prom, Brendan Loftus and Rose Zarnoweicki, were selected at random and received crowns and had their picture taken together.

Jesse Wright and Diane Dachota are freelance reporters.

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