Chicagoland

Nazareth students host prom for students with special needs

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
March 20, 2019

Nazareth students host prom for students with special needs

It took more than a rainy night to dampen spirits at Nazareth Academy’s prom for students with disabilities March 9, 2019.
Nazareth students Maya Floreani (left) and Sarah Rusthoven (right) dance with Jon Hlavacek, at Nazareth Academy in La Grange Park, which hosted its fifth prom night for students with disabilities on March 9, 2019. Each guest was accompanied by one or two Nazareth students, who acted as “buddies.” The first prom was held in 2011. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Colin Baar dances with Nazareth students at the prom at the high school in La Grange Park, which hosted its fifth prom night for students with disabilities on March 9, 2019. Each guest was accompanied by one or two Nazareth students, who acted as “buddies.” The first prom was held in 2011. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Rose Zarnowiecki and Paul Rosland lead Nazareth Academy students through the hall in a conga line March 19, 2019. They attended the school's prom for students with disabilities March 9, 2019. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Rose Zarnowiecki and Brendan Loftus smile after being crowned queen and king of the prom hosted by Nazareth Academy for students with disabilitoes on March 9, 2019. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Nazareth studentrs Connor Dempsey, Bella Sliwka, Paige Barnes, Eileen Garay and Julia Hasan play Uno with Olivi Blanke (second from left) from the dancing. March 9, 2019. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Paul Rosland III thanks Nazareth students for a magical evening at the prom for students with disabilities on March 9, 2019. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Paul Rosland III thanks Nazareth students for a magical evening at the prom March 19, 2019. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

It took more than a rainy night to dampen spirits at Nazareth Academy’s prom for students with disabilities March 9.

The prom, held every other year since 2011, welcomes young people with disabilities to the La Grange Park School for an evening of dancing, pizza and games hosted by Nazareth’s Friends in Service and Hospitality (FISH) club.

All told, about 100 Nazareth students acted as buddies and escorts for 35 guests, who entered in suits and ties and flowy dresses with sparkly sandals. Each guest was greeted with a name tag and a flower. Parents were welcome to take pictures, then leave for the duration of the dance. They could go out or head up to the school’s media center to wait.

Anthony Gonzalez, a Nazareth social studies teacher and one of the faculty members who helps run the dance, said the school tries to give the guests everything they would find at a usual school dance and more. The dining hall was decked out with shiny green St. Patrick’s Day decorations; a professional photographer snapped portraits of each guest with his or her escorts for the evening; the DJ played dance music and requests; pizza, lemonade and water were available.

Everything at the event, from the boutonnieres to the parting gift bags, was donated.

There also was a photo booth and game area where guests could play cards or beanbag, or sit and color for a time.

Gonzalez said the school invites students who participate in Pool Buddies, which matches up Nazareth students with students with disabilities for swimming; those who are in special education or recreation programs at neighboring public schools or park districts; and those who have friends or relatives who attend Nazareth.

“This is a population we really don’t have in the school,” Gonzalez said. “And we want to welcome them.”

Mark Matyskela, 19, was attending his third FISH prom. He went to the first one when his sister, Sarah, was a student at Nazareth.

Matyskela loves dancing, but he also took time to carefully color in a picture of a leprechaun with a pot of gold.

His father, Bill Matyskela, said Mark was nervous the first time he attended the prom, although it helped that his sister could be his escort for the evening. The second time he had fewer jitters, and this time he was confident and ready to go.

Volunteer Rebecca Odeh, who was keeping an eye on the games area, said she’s always heard the FISH prom was fun.

Matyskela’s two buddies, Olivia Pasinski and Maria Murphy, said they volunteered because they wanted to help give the guests with disabilities a fun night.

“I do Pool Buddies, too, and that’s a lot of fun,” Pasinski said.

Olivia Blanke, 15 (“Almost 16,” she said), played Uno with her escorts, but she said the dancing was the best part.

Steve and Sandy Hlavacek drove their son, Jon, 20, in for the prom from their home in Elmhurst. Jon Hlavacek had attended his regular high school’s prom, so he was doubly excited about this one, his mother said.

Jon Hlavacek is deaf and on the autism spectrum, and he usually needs some preparation before going to new places; he likes to see pictures and find out what’s going to happen. Sandy Hlavacek said she showed Jon pictures of Nazareth and explained about the dance, and that was good enough.

She was put more at ease when one of her son’s buddies called her the day before the prom to introduce herself and get some information about Jon, and said she and Jon’s other escort would both practice some basic signs to help facilitate communication.

That didn’t stop his parents from worrying, though. When they asked the student volunteers in the media center if they could go down and peek at their son, the students discouraged them.

“They’re really having a good time being without their parents,” the volunteer said. Then she looked at the picture Sandy Hlavacek snapped when they arrived, noted what he was wearing and the buddies he was with, and offered to go check on him.

Five minutes later, she was back, reporting that Jon was having a great time dancing.

At 8 p.m., halfway through the dance, a prom king and queen were named: Brendan Loftus and Rose Zarnowiecki, chosen at random, were crowned and beamed when they had their picture taken.

Christian Cano, a Nazareth senior and a member of the FISH prom steering committee, said he wanted to make the prom a success.

“I really just want these kids to have a really fun night,” said Cano, who has a younger cousin with a disability. “I’d like my cousin to be able to come to this.”

Cano said he suggested adding more games so that guests who got tired of dancing, or who needed a break from the loud music and flashing lights, would have something else to do.

The dance, he said, isn’t just fun for the guests. The volunteers and buddies have a good time, too.

“We get closer by doing this too,” Cano said. “It helps us bond with each other.”

Topics:

  • catholic schools
  • disabilities

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