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A night to shine

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On Saturday morning, Felicity Matson sat patiently while Jeanette Brown got busy with a curling iron.

“I’m not going to burn you, I promise,” the owner of Brown’s Salon said cheerfully.

Felicity, 14, smiled back — albeit a touch nervously — and  proceeded to let Brown turn her glossy chestnut hair into a soft cloud of spiral curls topped with a crown of braids.

It was nearly a mirror reflection of friend Emily Gribnau’s style — also by Brown —  exactly as Felicity had hoped.

The princess hair was just one step in attending that night’s “A Neon Night To Remember” at Walla Walla High School with Emily. For both eighth-graders, it was their first fancy dance.

Like any newly-emerging teenager, Felicity was excited about dressing up, getting her hair done and going out with friends.

And, like some teens, Felicity has autism and some brain disabilities. She’s also been shy enough that others had to work to get Felicity to really engage, said mom Jennifer Matson.

People like Emily, who spends one class period a day at Pioneer Middle School as a teacher’s aide assigned to do activities with Felicity, and joins her at lunch one day a week.

Matson said her daughter has recently began seeing the world differently and now fervently desires to be social with the mainstream crowd.

“She wants to go to the eighth-grade graduation, to go to the eighth-grade party … she verbalizes at home that she wants to do those things,” Matson said.

And Felicity was definitely ready to try out what’s being billed as the Walla Walla School District’s “first dance party for teens with special needs.”

Saturday was the high school’s debut prom-style event for this demographic, courtesy of special education teacher Jen Butenhoff.

After moving to Walla Walla three years ago, Butenhoff noticed a lack of interaction between teens with disabilities and their neurotypical peers. She started Wa-Hi’s Buddy Club, which pairs about 25 students from both groups for Friday activities, she said.

“A Neon Night To Remember” was added this year as an exclamation mark to the Buddy Club’s year, Butenhoff said, noting the high school’s culinary arts students made the dinner before the dance and the FFA horticulture class made wrist corsages for all the girls.

Eighth-graders were also invited to Saturday’s dance as a way to help familiarize them to high school next fall.

The dance is a fun highlight, agreed Libby Thompson, the School District’s special education director, but serious work is happening throughout the year in Buddy Club, she said.

“We know peer models make a huge difference for students with disabilities in learning things such as social skills, friendship and more. From my experience, all teenagers want friends, boyfriends, girlfriends no matter if they have a  disability.”

Thompson said buddy and mentor programs help fill the void that often happens when students with disabilities don’t know how to make friends and feel lonely. Some of these friendships last a lifetime and help students with disabilities make friends with each other, she said.

“I worked with a group of high school students with disabilities as a teacher. They learned how to make friends from typical peers and are now in their mid-twenties still spending time with each other doing typical things, going to the movies, out to eat, shopping, birthday parties. It’s great to see.”

Peer buddy programs can also change some mainstream perception of students with disabilities, Thompson said.

“They figure out quickly how wonderful these students are and become lifelong advocates for people with disabilities.”

The Matsons — both Jennifer and husband Eric work for the district — hoped the prom will be a positive precursor of their daughter’s upcoming high school experience.

There is always the worry Felicity will feel rejection or get her feelings hurt by school peers, Jennifer said, adding every parent fears the same.

“I think the biggest piece is that with any child, we go through these growing pains as they become adults. You know how vulnerable there are, even if they don’t know that. You want peers around who will support them but also be their advocates and their cheerleaders.”

But for now, there was that first fancy dance.

As dozens of paper stars hung on swaying ribbons in the Wa-Hi commons foyer Saturday evening, Butenhoff and helpers signed in attendees. Forty feet of purple fabric on the floor and swathes of sparkly tulle created a “red carpet” entrance into the cafeteria, where strings of lights and balloons danced overhead.

Nothing outshone the attendees, however. Sequins and light-up shoes accented the many hugs and shouted greetings. A taco bar waited for hungry party-goes, and tables were covered with paper were ripe for artistic expression with the supplied crayons.

Felicity and Emily, hair intact, arrived in their party dresses and smiles, and headed toward friends.

Eric and Jennifer Matson knew this was their cue to leave.

“If we stay, she won’t dance, she’ll want to hang with me,” Jennifer said of her daughter.

“And we know it’s not cool if your parents stay at the dance.”

Sheila Hagar can be reached at or 526-8322.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at or 526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers education in the Walla Walla Valley. She also writes a column, Home Place, usually highlighting family life and slices of local life.

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