Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Best Buddies Bring Prom Magic to Life for Special-Needs Youths

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Best Buddies Bring Prom Magic to Life for Special-Needs Youths

Article excerpt

Byline: Susan D. Brandenburg, Shorelines correspondent

Akin to Cinderella's magical pumpkin coach drawn by six white horses, the white stretch limousine pulled up in front of the JacksonvilleHilton with passengers who were going to the ball, after all.

Students in Bartram Trail High School's developmentally disabled program, Justin Soldt, Lauren Stowers and Megan Gilmartin of Ponte Vedra Beach, arrived at the first Best Buddies Ball in style May 17 and were joined at the prom-type event by more than 100 other youths from several area high schools, including Bishop Kenny, Fernandina Beach, Ed White, Palatka, West Nassau and Bartram Trail, as well as the Arc and the Webb Center.

"This is a special night for Megan -- one we thought she'd never experience," Brad Parsons of Ponte Vedra Beach said as he gently transferred his giggling 17-year-old daughter from the limo to her wheelchair. "She and her mother have been primping all day. While Megan's at her prom having fun with her best buddies, Gabrielle and I will have a rare night out at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse right next door."

An international non-profit organization dedicated to enhancing the lives of individuals with intellectual disabilities by providing one-to-one friendships and integrated job employment, Best Buddies was founded in 1989 by Anthony Kennedy Shriver and now includes more than 30,000 participants.

"In Jacksonville, we're currently funded for Best Buddies High School, one of the six programs offered worldwide," said Program Supervisor Maggie Waked. "We've linked students in 16 area high schools and decided it was time they had their own prom."

Noting that the first Best Buddies Ball was made possible through the generosity of the Hilton, Winn-Dixie, Compass Bank and Sally Industries, Waked and her Best Buddies chaperones had a busy night with a diverse group of happy teens.

"When you see a tall, handsome boy like [chaperone] Cole Slate dancing with every girl at this special prom, you know that's a truly compassionate leader in the making," said Best Buddies board member and prom chaperone Stephanie Minniear of St. John & Partners on the Southside. …

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