A prom of their own: Thames Valley holds first-ever prom for students with developmental disabilities

About 140 students across seven TVDSB schools and from the town of Exeter are expected to attend the event pegged DE prom.

The event will be held on May 31 at Clarke Road Secondary School

Chloe Tilbury, left and Dominique Bradd, right, are both going to the first-ever prom in Thames Valley that will be held specifically for students with developmental disabilities. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

Fifteen-year-old Chloe Tilbury didn't get the chance to go to her Grade 8 graduation party. Though she likes to dance and dress-up, she's never experienced any sort of school prom. 

Tilbury, who's a freshman at Clarke Road Secondary School's Developmental Centre, admits she had a hard time making friends growing up and was often singled out for her learning disability.

She knew going to prom one day would give her the opportunity to meet new people and make friends.

Now, she won't have to wait till Grade 12 or graduation.

Her school is set to host Thames Valley District School Board's first-ever prom geared toward students of all ages across developmental disability programs, to be held on May 31 at the school's cafeteria.

"I was very happy about it because it's my first prom," she said. "I was very excited."

Debbie Lee, the department head of the centre at Clarke Road. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

What makes the fairy-themed party even more exciting for Tilbury is that other students from local and area programs are also invited to the free event.

"[I'm looking forward to] meeting new people from different schools … and making new friends," Tilbury said.

What is DE prom?

About 140 students across seven TVDSB schools — and from the town of Exeter — are expected to attend the event, dubbed DE prom.

Debbie Lee, the department head of the centre at Clarke Road, first thought of the idea five years ago when she was a teacher and worked with students at the centre.

"I think it can be intimidating for a student with a developmental diagnosis to go to a main school prom," she said.

"I would never want a student to go through high school and not have friends or not have that experience to dance with a friend or a boy or a girl and to experience that social piece," she said.

The community has donated about 100 dresses and 30 suits. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

"It's a time for them to experience what a normal teenage prom would be," she added.

The "fully-inclusive" event will be held during the day to ensure those with transportation needs can attend. It'll also feature food specifically catered for students with dietary and medical preferences.

Lee said staff are putting up fewer glitter lights, that are popular at traditional proms, because they may be disruptive to some students.

There will be an abundance of staff and teaching assistants in attendance so students can feel comfortable and supported.

"We just want to make it accessible for everyone," Lee said.

From left to right: Avery Burness, Laurie Eschbach (their grandma), Rachel Burness and Jodi Burness. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

Lee said the prom is open to all students at the school just like the traditional prom that's always welcomed students from the Developmental Centre.

"The main school proms are very inclusive," she said. "We just wanted to give [students at the Developmental Centre] something that's their own."

'Great idea for inclusivity'

Lee said the community has been very supportive.

People have donated about 100 dresses, 30 suits and boxes filled with high heels, dress shoes, purses and other accessories. Lee said food vouchers are also pouring in.

"This is such a feel good story that people are really embracing the goodness of it," said Lee.

Tilbury was lucky enough to pick out a dress from the rolling racks, one that's "long, dark blue and strapless," as she describes it.

Donated shoes for the May 31 prom can be seen here. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

Her friend Dominique Bradd also picked one out. 

"It has jewels on the chest and it's strapless and it's beautiful," said the 16-year-old. 

"The one I picked was beautiful and it matched me perfectly," said Bradd. "I finally get to dress up and show who I really am."

Twin sisters Rachel and Avery Burness, 15, slipped into the dresses they picked to show them off. The twins' mother, Jodi Burness, said it will be a night out of the ordinary for her girls. 

"Their daily life is very regimented and so this is an opportunity to step outside of that … Having the prom at this age, it gives you something to look forward to year after year," she said.

"I thought it was such a great idea for inclusivity."


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