The limousine rolled up and Amberley Sewell stepped out into the blazing sun, her gown brushing the red carpet.
Gingerly, leaning on her walker with her boyfriend’s arm around her waist, she made her entrance through the front door and into her prom. It was a rite of passage that Sewell, 18, missed during high school, when she endured countless surgeries and therapy sessions for a rare condition that attacked her connective tissues.
“This is very, very special for me,” Sewell said as she and Nathan Stein, 20, entered the lobby of Shriners Hospital Northern California. The couple were among 130 former patients and their guests from Hayward to Antelope who attended Saturday’s gala, the first prom at Shriners in Sacramento. “It gives me a chance to do something I have never done before.”
Shriners treats some of the most complex and challenging medical conditions imaginable, including spinal and orthopedic abnormalities and injuries and severe burns. It does so without regard for a family’s ability to pay.
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“We wanted to give our kids an opportunity to enjoy an event that maybe they had to miss in high school because they were in the hospital, or in too much pain, or they simply weren’t asked,” said Melissa Grialou, manager of the therapeutic recreation and child life program at Shriners. The prom was the culmination of months of planning by Grialou and her staff.
It included sessions with volunteer makeup artists and hairstylists, corsages and boutonnieres and limousine rides around the Shriners campus. Teenagers wearing formal dresses and suits entered the building on a red carpet surrounded by cheering family members and Shriners staffers. Photographers snapped their pictures.
Austin Deo, 16, had to skip the limousine ride because his electric wheelchair could not easily fit into the car. But he and his mother Angeline Varasala, both of them dressed in traditional Indian garb, did hit the red carpet together, posed at the photo booth and took a turn on the dance floor. Austin, who has cerebral palsy as well as spinal and orthopedic conditions, has been a Shriners patient since he was 3. He is unable to walk or talk, but his mother sensed her son’s joy when she told him that they would be going to his prom.
“As a mother,” she said, “you think, ‘If my son was “normal” he would be preparing for his junior prom,’ and you’re sad because you believe that it will never happen. It’s heart-wrenching.”
When she received the Shriners invitation in the mail, she said, “I had no words. Tears were flowing. I was just so happy that my son would be able to experience this.”
In a way, Varsala said, it was her prom, too. As a teenage mother, she never attended her own.
“This will create special memories for both of us.”
Laisha Guevara, 16, arrived at Shriners on Saturday morning wearing a shirt with a sassy image of pop star Selena, ready for a makeup artist to decorate her eyes and lips and a stylist to curl her hair. She looked into a mirror after her session and nodded her approval. Later, she changed into her prom outfit, a black lacy top paired with a flouncy pink skirt.
“Since I was small, I always imagined myself going to the prom,” said Laisha, who received treatment at Shriners for a cyst on her spine that caused her pain and limited her mobility. “I always thought about a big prom dress and just having fun.” On Saturday, she did.
The Shriners lobby was elegantly decorated in black and gold. Prom guests munched on fresh fruit, gourmet cupcakes and cubes of cheese, and drank water laced with cucumber and lemon. The hospital’s auditorium became a dance floor. A chandelier hung from the ceiling, and a volunteer DJ spun tunes by Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, Bruno Mars and the Black Eyed Peas.
“I got a feeling,” the Peas sang, “that tonight’s gonna be a good night …”
Some of the teenagers seemed uncomfortable at first. They lingered in the lobby, squirming in their suits and dresses, glancing around the room. A few stared into their phones. A gaggle of girls compared outfits and shoes.
The dance floor beckoned, but no one appeared inclined to be the first to venture out. Laisha wanted to wait for the right song. Amberley was conserving her energy. Austin’s mother was pushing his wheelchair around the lobby, making small talk with other parents and Shriners staffers.
But slowly, they began to trickle over.
The light was low, and the floor was covered with gold confetti. The teens lined up at the photo booth and engaged in serious and silly poses. Some of them grabbed hats and boas and signs for their pictures. “Party animal,” one read. “Kiss me,” read another. “Because I’m happy,” said a third. Their photos flashed on a big screen in the dark room, eliciting smiles and giggles.
In time, even the most reluctant guests succumbed to the lure of the music.
A group of burn patients who quietly hung out with one another for most of the evening went out, with the encouragement of bubbly Shriners recreation specialist Alejandra Gallardo, and swayed together. A girl in an electric wheelchair spun in a circle. Kids clinging to walkers bobbed from side to side. Groups of girls lifted their arms to the sky and sang out loud. Shoes and jackets were tossed to the side, and inhibitions melted away.
Austin’s mother carefully piloted her son’s chair around other dancers and onto the floor. She took his hand, closed her eyes and tiptoed around him. Austin looked up at her and smiled.
Amberley and her boyfriend felt the energy, too. They moved from the lobby to the auditorium and settled near the perimeter of the dance floor.
Parking her walker, Amberley stood up and Nathan took her into his arms. They looked into each other’s eyes and began dancing like they were floating on air.