CCDC prom makes for sweet dreams

Special needs students enjoy a night to shine

By Bob Ludwig, Special To The Times

D.J. Proctor, a CCDC student, and his guest, Melanie Serrano of Coatesville, pose for their official prom photograph.

D.J. Proctor, a CCDC student, and his guest, Melanie Serrano of Coatesville, pose for their official prom photograph.

COATESVILLE — “Sweet Dreams,” the theme of the 10th annual prom at the Chester County Intermediate Unit’s Child and Career Development Center (CCDC) became sweet memories for the nearly 150 students and guests who attended the event on Friday, May 13.

Dressed in their finest, students and guests enjoyed dinner, prepared by the Culinary Arts instructor Lana Lindenmuth and the school’s culinary arts staff, and danced in the school gymnasium. Transformed by CCDC staff, the gym became a supper club ballroom with dazzling decorations and special lighting.

For CCDC student Mark Rapley, it was his fourth prom, but he said it never gets old. “I have fun,” he said. “I get to dance with my friends. I get to see old friends. And, I like dressing up.”

The excitement of the students was not lost on CCDC Principal Dr. Susan Mateka and Jessica Mazzoli, an English as a second language teacher and the prom coordinator for the past 10 years.

Eric Juarez, a CCDC student, has his prom corsage pinned on by a student volunteer from Downingtown Area School District.

Eric Juarez, a CCDC student, has his prom corsage pinned on by a student volunteer from Downingtown Area School District.

“Our students face so many challenges and hard work on a daily basis to have a positive school experience,” Mateka said. “The prom is our opportunity to show the students how much we care, how important they are to us and that they deserve to enjoy the same types of activities as their peers attending typical schools.”

Operated by the CCIU, the CCDC is a center-based program for students with differing abilities. Serving children ages 5-21 with a range of disabilities, the CCDC has approximately 430 students in the following programs: autism support, learning support, emotional support, life skills support and multiple disability support. CCDC serves a total of 28 school districts in Chester, Berks, Lancaster and Montgomery counties. Throughout its 44-year existence, the CCDC has remained a leader in special education.

Teachers like Mazzoli care about the students. It was Mazzoli who brought the off-campus prom back to CCDC 10 years ago. “The prom used to be off-site,” Mazzoli said. “We had to rent space. The kids had to pay (more) to attend. Students didn’t always know where the location was and for some it was a challenge to get there. Having it here is cost effective. The students have better access and they know where they are going.”

Mazzoli said she knew moving the prom was the right decision in 2006 when an 18-year old student from Coatesville Area School District attended the prom. He was a big kid, but unassuming and “never talked much” in school. However, he came up to Mazzoli at the end of the night to thank her. “He loomed over me and leaned down and said he wanted to tell me something,” Mazzoli remembered. “He said it was best night of his life. That’s when I knew we’d do it here every year.”

To have a successful prom each year, Mazzoli said she relies on 20 to 25 staff volunteers from the CCDC who all pitch in to help. The horticulture teacher Mike Walls acts as the DJ, keeping the music playing and the students up dancing all night. Chris Paladino, the CCDC’s literacy center specialist, and Glen Schoener, whose wife Cheryl is a high school Life Skills teacher, acted as photographers for the night, snapping student memories. The behavioral staff provided security and assisted in the parking lots.

The prom also serves as an opportunity for community involvement. Walls recently attended a corsage-making class at Longwood Gardens. When other workshop attendees learned why he was there, they donated all the corsages they had made in class to the prom effort. Pulse Beauty Academy in Downingtown closes on the day of the prom and provides free hair and makeup for all of the girls.

Mazzoli said she wouldn’t be able to coordinate such a first-class event without the whole-hearted support of Principal Mateka. “She’s so wonderful,” Mazzoli said. “She’s a consistent advocate and supporter of the prom and anything that makes our kids feel like everybody else. The students are priority number one.”

“It truly is a magical night put together by dedicated staff volunteers,” Mateka said. “It is such a joy to see the faces of our students when they first see their gymnasium transformed into a beautiful venue designed just for them. They love getting dressed up, dancing with their friends and putting aside their daily challenges. The staff enjoys seeing our kids having fun and interacting in a positive, appropriate manner.”

For horticulture student Aja Reyes, the night was all about the music. She said she doesn’t dance because she’s “more of a tomboy,” but her horticulture teacher/DJ for the night “is the best.” Reyes said she also liked the food. “Miss (Barbara) Kelly cooks it,” she said. The bond between Reyes and her teachers is strong.

“Our students deserve the best, and the prom is one of the many ways we show them how much we care,” said Mateka. For CCDC students “Sweet Dreams” are truly made of this.

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