Michaela "Mikki" Medina, a 21-year-old graduate of Santa Fe High with a chromosomal disability and cerebral palsy, went to her high school prom. Christian Woodard, a 31-year-old with Down syndrome, attended Santa Fe High and Capital High back in the day, and went to prom at both of those institutions.
At the time, they may not have hoped for, expected, or even been aware of the existence of a prom just for them. But for the past five years, Angelique Chavez and an ad hoc group of friends, parents and volunteers have tried their hardest to provide just that.
And to the attendees, there's no comparison.
"I think it's like, super fun," Woodard says.
Medina, who will be attending the prom for the third year, was first introduced to the event by Chavez.
"Angelique said, 'I really want you to come, it's really fun, everyone is nice over there, and you'll have a blast,'" Medina says. SFR asked if she did, in fact, have a blast. The answer was an emphatic yes.
What began as a pet project for Chavez' children and their friends, held in a roped-off section of the school cafeteria in 2014, has grown into a behemoth that even she, a driven mother and full-time advocate, can't face alone.
About 250 guests are expected to attend Santa Fe's the fifth annual special needs prom, not to mention their parents, siblings, cousins and chaperones, and the legions of volunteers that rally together every year to put the gathering together.
Far from its humble beginnings in the middle of the afternoon in a school that couldn't be bothered to give them a full cafeteria, the event will be held at Blaze Christian Fellowship at 6 Bisbee Court on May 4, will be catered by Olive Garden (all the food is donated, and separated for potential allergies). It even features hair and makeup for the attendees before they arrive, limo rides, and professional photographs when guests get there. Dresses and tuxedos are donated as well, and attendees keep them when their night is over.
The best part, according to Chavez' best friend and co-conspirator in her prom activities, Yvonne Encinias: It's all free.
"There's absolutely no worry for that kid; they're just going to come," Encinias says. "Everything is given to them, you're not gonna spend a penny, and it's gonna be magical."
The event isn't just for high-schoolers either.
"To put an age cap, then we're just limiting them, and were cutting them out of something that they've already been cut out of for so long," Chavez says. "If they're 40, 50, and they missed their prom, come and have a good time. I think everyone deserves that."
Chavez and Encinias agree that the importance of a special night just for these people can't be overstated.
"Not to say that everyone is heartless out there," Encinias says. "But it's the unknown; so if someone looks different, you know, you get the stares and you get the inquisitive looks, and sometimes almost a fear, because people are afraid of the different. And these people with special needs, they feel it. They see it. They sense it."
Even though the attendees are welcome to attend their own high school proms, to Chavez, true inclusion means having the same great night that their typical peers do, and that often can't happen at a standard prom.
"Even though they're given the opportunity to be included with their peers, they're truly not," Chavez says. "They're still the ones sitting in the corner, they're still the ones avoided. At these events, they're the center of attention."
A wider national effort set in motion by the Tim Tebow Foundation, the charitable giving organization started by the star quarterback, has been at work across the US and the world. The Night to Shine Prom, which began the same year that Chavez first held her prom in the cafeteria, now reaches 655 churches (the organization is faith-based) in all 50 states and 24 countries, according to its website.
Unlike the Night to Shine Prom, Chavez' effort has been entirely grassroots. What hasn't been donated has to be purchased, and she and her committee chairs have spent hundreds of dollars out of their own pockets to make the night a reality.
Parents, siblings and caretakers get in on the fun as well.
Anita Medina, Mikki's mother, who is also in charge of all the table settings, says that she and other parents often get even more excited than their children.
"I felt like I was the adult and she was the kid!" Mikki adds of the last prom.
It's not too late to get involved, according to Chavez, either as a volunteer or as an attendee. Simply email firstname.lastname@example.org.
"We'll put them on the list, count them in on the food," Chavez says. "They can let us know if they need accommodations. Anything they need, we will do."
Volunteers will be put to work, as there's plenty to be done.
"Every time we think, 'Oh, we're gonna make a huge impact on these kids,' they make a huge impact on everyone else," Chavez says. "It's bigger than I can even wrap my head around."