When Stephen Shenal learned he would get the chance to enjoy a daddy-daughter dance with his daughter Ryleigh, he was over the moon — but even more satisfaction came, he said, when he saw other families like his coming out to enjoy the same thing.
There aren’t a lot of public events that are designed for children who have special needs, said Jodi Shenal, Ryleigh’s mom. It’s why, when she saw pictures of a daddy-daughter dance on Facebook, she felt sad that her husband and daughter hadn’t had the chance to share that experience.
So, with some help from her friend and special education teacher Kaitlin Young, they decided to make their own dance.
“It started as an idea — how can we make that happen,” Shenal said. “It made me sad for my husband and our daughter. Having a disability shouldn’t take that away from you.”
And so, with Young’s help, they started brainstorming the features that would make for a dance that takes into account the special needs of the children who would attend. Normal proms are too dark, Young said, so the ambient lighting is a bit brighter than usual. There’s no strobe lights whatsoever, so as not to trigger seizures. The music would play at a much lower volume than usual to avoid scaring or making any children uncomfortable, and all the food would account for the attendees’ dietary restrictions.
“We wanted to make sure these kids have a memorable experience with their parents, and for all of them to have fun together,” Young said. “We even have pureed foods because we have kids who can’t eat solids.”
The event was dubbed the Butterfly Ball, and the theme of butterflies came about not only because each child is as unique as the pattern on a butterfly’s wings, but they can each undergo huge transformations.
“They all have bright, colorful personalities,” Young said, “and they can transform into things you’d never think they can. I’ve had nonverbal students go on to become verbal, and some even enter into regular ed classes.”
Jodi Shenal said it was incredible how the event was embraced by the community and rapidly found sponsors, donors and volunteers.
“Ladies even donated dresses, formal gowns, because they wanted little girls to have something special to wear,” she said.
Besides the Miracle League, Young said there isn’t much in the way of public events for families who have children with special needs and disabilities.
Meredith Brown, between bouts of dancing with her daughter, said often when parents of children with special needs want a public event for their whole family, they have to organize it themselves.
“When you talk about kids with special needs, you have such a wide variety — my kid, who’s verbal and go, go, go 24/7, or a kid who’s nonverbal and maybe is a bit more introverted,” she said. “And, honestly, this is something I could look at my calendar and look forward to. It’s not a doctor’s appointment or a hospital visit.”