Valentine’s Day came early for a group of students with disabilities who gathered at the Vineyard Church of Augusta on Sunday night.
The dress was formal. The food was plated. A professional photographer took portraits of each of the students as they arrived to the church’s first special-needs dance. More than 60 people attended.
“This is a place where special-needs kids and their parents can feel comfortable. They can come and dance and have fun and make friends,” said Barb Bowman, a paraprofessional educator who has worked with students with disabilities at Greenbrier High School for 15 years.
On Sunday, she donned a hot pink wig and doctor’s coat and introduced herself as “Dr. Luv,” the emcee of the event. Bowman hoped her character’s wacky dance moves would help some of the students feel more comfortable on the dance floor.
Renata and Cecil Melendez attended the free event with their two daughters, Maria, 20, and Theresa, 16.
“There’s a need for programs like this, and we want others to know about it,” said Renata Melendez, of Graniteville.
Donna Frick’s daughters, Cassie and Lauren, said they were excited for the opportunity to dance.
Frick has been a special-education teacher at Evans Elementary for 26 years. Both of her daughters, ages 21 and 22, have disabilities.
“Some of the kids and young adults from the church came out to dance with these guys. It’s the most awesome thing. It makes them feel really special,” Frick said. “For a lot of people, they don’t go to church because of their kids. They don’t feel welcomed. This community has always been very welcoming of my girls.”
The event was held the night after the church’s father-daughter dance to make the most of the decorations, which were Indian-inspired. Lanterns hung from the ceiling of the church’s café, and a nearly life-sized elephant served as a photo backdrop.
“It’s colorful. It’s fun,” said Mary-Margaret LeRoy, the church’s children’s pastor.
About a year ago, the church started its first Sunday school class for adults with disabilities. Sunday’s dance grew out of that program, LeRoy said.
Members of the church invited families they knew with children who have disabilities, and school teachers helped spread the word about the dance.
“It’s been one of the easiest things to get volunteers for. People say, ‘Of course, I’ll help,’” LeRoy said. “It’s incredible. As a church, we believe that each one of us is created in the image of God. We find that when we stop labeling people, if you stop putting them in categories and just start spending time together, really amazing things can happen. That’s what tonight is about.”