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Special needs prom brings attendees joy

By LAUREL BLACK lblack@paducahsun.com

Caldwell County's Joseph Asher was a dancer to the core -- so much, in fact, that after his funeral in 2015, his adoptive parents, Cheyenne and Steve, encouraged attendees to dance along to "Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)" in his honor.

This passion buoyed Joseph, who suffered from hydrocephalus due to a brain malformation, through life until his death at the age of 15 from a shunt malfunction. Despite struggles with hearing and a difficulty speaking, he managed to maintain a cheerful attitude and win friends wherever he went, often through dance.

"He never met a stranger," Cheyenne Asher said. "He'd walk up to the biggest, burliest man and jump on him. â ¦ He had the ability to warm the hearts of everyone he met, and he really, really loved to dance."

What better way to honor Joseph, then, than to hold a social dancing event that allows others with special needs or disabilities to let loose and take part in the activity that enriched Joseph Asher's life?

The second annual Joseph's Joy Prom, slated for 6-10 p.m. April 15 at the Lyon County Convention Center, aims to bring Joseph's sense of exuberance to others who may not experience it on a daily basis. The event is put on by the Caldwell Lyon Leadership Program.

Open only to those 16 and older who live with special needs or disabilities, the prom features a red carpet entrance (complete with "paparazzi" taking photos), a dinner, shoe shines for the male participants, hair and makeup for the females, and an evening of nonstop, energetic dancing -- just as Joseph would have wanted.

"It's just all smiles," Cheyenne Asher said. "It's beautiful."

She added the event has proven a source of healing for the Asher family, who adopted Joseph when he was about 8 years old.

The Ashers also adopted another special needs child, Ivan, who is nonverbal and relies on a wheelchair to move. Since joining the family at the age of 5 months, Ivan, now 11, has learned to communicate with the help of a computer. The experience of raising children with special needs-- along with parenting biological daughters Alyssa, Cailyn and Makenzie-- have taught the family much, she said.

"Don't judge a book by its cover," Cheyenne said.

"When you look at a child in a wheelchair, so many people think he can't understand. There's so much potential inside these individuals that we don't give them credit for," and that shines through at the prom.

She added that her three daughters, along with other teenage volunteers, have said they enjoy the Joseph's Joy Prom at least as much if not more than their own proms.

So do the volunteers. "Bankers, fast food workers -- it doesn't matter. Everyone just lets their wall down and joins in. In the special needs world, that's kind of what you want to see," she said.

The event, which drew inspiration from a similar prom in Georgia, began in Caldwell County last year. Fifty-five people attended, according to Jill Lane, an organizer.

The dance expanded this year to include Lyon County, and Lane said she hopes it will continue to grow so more people with special needs in the Purchase area will have the opportunity to feel like "the superstars they are."

"It's a big deal for them to get to go to the prom," she added.

To make this happen, Lane said, many volunteers are needed.

Positions include working as a host or hostess, serving food, styling hair, applying makeup or shoeshine, serving as security or parking volunteers and taking photos. An hour-long training session, which includes watching videos of last year's prom and learning the basics of caring for individuals with special needs, is required of all volunteers, who must be 16 or older.

Trainings will be held 6 p.m. Wednesday at Farmers Bank in Princeton and at 3:25 p.m. next Monday in the Eddyville Mall, she said.

Anyone interested in volunteering or donating formal dresses, suits or money can contact Lane at 270-625-1531 or 270-365-2033.

"It is just a blast for these kids," she added. "I saw what a huge event it was, and I thought, 'I'll never miss another one.'"

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