November 8, 2012 10:47:47 AM
Carmen K. Sisson - firstname.lastname@example.org
Last April, members of Mt. Vernon Baptist Church joined together for an evening of joy, hosting a unique prom in which 62 members of the special needs community were paired with student "dates" from the church youth group and nearby New Hope High School.
The concept was simple: In Luke 14, Jesus instructs his disciples not to invite friends, brothers, relatives or neighbors to a banquet, because they might return the kindness. Instead, he tells them, "invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind" -- those who cannot repay. The reward, he tells them, will come at the resurrection of the righteous.
It turns out they won't have to wait quite that long to be recognized for their efforts. The Mississippi Department of Mental Health has awarded the congregation with the James C. Stubbs Volunteer Award -- the first time a group, rather than an individual, has been chosen for the honor.
The event stood out to the awards committee because of its magnitude and the number of people it took to make it happen, said Kathy Denton, public relations director for Mississippi State Hospital, a behavioral health program operated under the state department of mental health.
"It truly was astounding the way this church and youth group rallied the community to come together to give such a personal and amazing gift to so many," Denton said. "They will truly talk about that night for years to come. You only have to go to the website and view the video to see the pure joy experienced by both the givers and the receivers."
Red carpet treatment
Connie Tilley, director of Columbus Community Programs, said she nominated Mt. Vernon Baptist Church for the honor because she saw the deep, positive impact the prom had upon the people she serves every day. As head of the local branch of Ellisville State School, she works with around 85 adults in Lowndes County who have intellectual and developmental challenges.
For most, the prom was an evening of firsts. The guests of honor were treated to a hair, makeup and clothing session with volunteers. Then they and their dates were picked up by limousine and driven around the block, returning to the church, where they were greeted by hundreds of cheering people and proud parents as they strolled down a red carpet to a darkened banquet hall bedecked with white icicle lights and a mock disco light.
"They did such a fantastic job," Tilley said of the organizers and young escorts. "It was just over the top, something to behold. I was so touched by the results. Individuals with developmental disabilities sometimes don't get that special treatment, and that was what stood out to me -- it was such special treatment."
Princes and princesses
No one saw the hours of preparation that went into making the evening a success. The majority of the escorts were high school juniors and seniors, and they voluntarily underwent hours of instruction from guest speakers who helped them understand the challenges the special needs community faces, as well as issues that might arise during the evening, from helping someone in a wheelchair "dance" to guiding those with visual impairments.
Two of church member Bobbie Sue Pearson's three sons, Leebo Davis, 18, and Wells Davis, 15, participated in April's "Joy Prom." Before their dates arrived, they had no idea with whom they would be paired. Her oldest son escorted a 24-year-old woman with Down syndrome. Her youngest son escorted a young woman who has cerebral palsy.
Leebo Davis attended his own senior prom shortly afterward, and his mother was surprised to hear him say he had more fun at the Joy Prom.
"How many of us remember our high school proms and/or special occasions when we dressed up and felt like a prince or princess for the night?" Pearson wrote in a letter to the James C. Stubbs award committee. "Mt. Vernon church members, along with the help of many area volunteers, provided one of the most memorable nights possible for teens and adults with special needs. It was a night when all problems, limitations and differences were forgotten, and the only thing on everyone's mind was dancing and having a good time with friends, both old and new."
A parable in action
When Lead Pastor Josh Daffern introduced the idea to his congregation, he wasn't sure if it would work. At a church conference, he heard about similar events and decided to try it.
But many of his flock say Joy Prom was one of the most memorable things they have participated in as a church body, and they were moved by the opportunity to experience God's parable in action.
"When we did this, we didn't do it to get anything back," Pearson said. "We did it to help those who couldn't help themselves. It's an honor (the state department of mental health) chose us, and we appreciate it. We didn't do it to receive anything; we did it to give."
They have no intentions of resting on their laurels either. Plans for the April 2013 Joy Prom are already underway.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.