By Natalie Gross
Lena King stared into a handheld mirror, watching carefully as cosmetologist Crystal Corbie used a soft brush to blend the colors along her cheek.
It was King’s first time wearing makeup, and she wasn’t sure whether she would like it. She just knew she wanted to look beautiful because she was going to her first high school prom.
King is a 17-year-old senior at Eastern Senior High School. She has braces, likes to read books and frequently weaves movie references into casual conversation. She has a remarkable knack for reading facial expressions and remembering people’s names.
If you ask her about school, she gushes about her teachers and says, “I’m learning to be a responsible adult.”
King was one of about 80 students and young adults with special needs who attended a prom hosted by Waterfront Church DC at Nationals Park on Friday, Feb. 12. The Navy Yard congregation received a grant from the Tim Tebow Foundation to throw the Night to Shine bash, one of more than 200 proms for people with special needs happening simultaneously around the world.
Volunteers came from as far as Texas for the event, which included limousine rides and a red carpet entrance with paparazzi for guests and their caregivers. Later in the evening, all guests – many from D.C. Public Schools and the local chapter of Young Life, a non-denominational Christian group for teens and adolescents – were crowned kings and queens of the prom.
As students danced the “Macarena,” formed conga lines and got “low, low, low, low, low, low, low, low,” to Flo-Rida’s popular hit, many parents, teachers and volunteers joined in. Others stood by taking in the scene – the meaning of songs like “Firework” and “What Makes You Beautiful” not lost on them.
Ricki Perry stood near the dance floor, beaming as she watched King and four of her other students move with the music. Perry leads a class of nine students with autism at Eastern, teaching them life skills in addition to academics.
“I’m always really emotional when I see this,” Perry said. Students with autism thrive on routines, she said, but these students had embraced a situation with no predictability. Some had even navigated an unfamiliar Metro route to get there.
Zillah Wesley, a social worker at Dunbar High School, was thankful for Night to Shine’s focus on people with special needs. Though hesitant at first, two seniors she works with, Angel Blake and Brandon Johnson, decided to attend.
“I think that it’s extremely important for all children to feel like they’re important and that they come to events like this. They get to dress up, get to get in the limousine, they get wonderful food,” she said. “I feel it’s really helped their self esteem a lot.”
King, too, got a boost of self-confidence Friday. With all eyes on her back in the hair and makeup room, she flashed a big smile. “I look nice!”
With that, she declared herself a “makeup person” and changed into her navy blue dress, eager to show off her new look on the red carpet – and to her crush.
To her, it was all like something out of a Julia Roberts film.