Two Ottawa teenagers did not have to say a word for others to know they were excited about attending prom together Saturday.
Big smiles spread across the faces of Arlie Stewart, 17, who was born with cerebral palsy, and Aryka Finch, 16, who has traumatic brain injuries after she survived a car accident that killed her parents.
Their matchmaker, Betty Friedel, Ottawa Middle School life skills teacher, said nobody thought prom would be possible for them, but their disabilities should not limit them from experiencing the formal dance high schoolers eagerly await.
“Arlie doesn’t get a lot of the milestones that other children have and I think that he deserves to have them just as much as anyone else,” Friedel said. “Going to prom is a milestone for the children and I knew that Arlie and Aryka would make a perfect couple.”
As his in-home teacher for the past five years, the plan has been on Friedel’s mind. Now she is finally seeing it transpire after her Facebook post a few weeks ago garnered attention and support.
With the help of the Green Prom Movement, a local organization that recycles and customizes dresses for free, the teenagers were gifted evening attire for the spring event.
Prairie Rose Gifts and Jim’s Formal Wear, 232 S. Main St., donated Arlie’s specially-fitted tuxedo. The Green Prom Movement donated Aryka’s blue, bedazzled dress.
Even the bus drivers wanted to help, vying for the chance to chauffer the couple, Friedel said.
Sandy Shaum, Arlie’s nurse for about eight years, said she is using the school’s colors to decorate their bus, which will deliver the friends to the high school, where they’ll be wheeled in their wheelchairs to the gymnasium.
The teenagers have known each other since childhood, she said, and live down the road from each other.
“We used to go for walks with the nurse that was with her back then,” she said. “We would both take them — they were young children at the time — for walks around the block and they were great friends. Aryka would be kicking and swinging her arms and legs.”
For the families, the opportunity is a dream come true.
“I’m just thrilled to watch Arlie’s mom and Aryka’s grandma. I did this for them,” Friedel said. “They need these memories, they need to have these experiences with their babies.”
Lavonna Stewart, Arlie’s mother, said the dance will be an evening she will never forget.
“I think it’s going to be big for Ottawa High School and the town of Ottawa,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
When Arlie was born, she said, she was told her youngest son would not leave the hospital alive. Now 17, Arlie receives in-home schooling from his teacher Friedel. Saturday will be his first visit to the high school.
“I thought I would never see him be able to do what my other son or my daughter could do,” Lavonna Stewart said.
Pam Finch, Aryka’s grandmother, said she was saddened earlier this year thinking her granddaughter might not get to attend prom — a thought reversed by efforts weeks ago.
Pam Finch said she thinks the Green Prom Movement is a neat organization that enables girls to recycle dresses and allows her granddaughter to select the “sparkly” and “blingy” dress.
“It’s like she didn’t want to take it off or give it up,” Pam Finch said, adding she was “like a go-lucky little girl because they had a pretty dress for her.”
A beautician will arrive Saturday afternoon to help doll Arkya up before the dance, she said.
Pam Finch said she has fond memories of her own prom in 1977, when she met her husband.
And now that Aryka’s prom is drawing near, she is growing excited about the music and dancing ahead.
Daniel Wray, Ottawa school district’s special services director, said he’s not yet sure how the experience will impact the high school. Though any time students with disabilities participate, he said, it helps the greater community understand that not everybody is alike.
“I think it’s a great chance for Ottawa High School to see kids with disabilities in a different environment and different light and to really highlight the fact that they want the same things that typical kids want,” Wrap said.
Wray said he will escort Arlie and Friedel will escort Aryka.
“I heard that when they tried on their outfits they were both very expressive about the opportunity,” Wray said. “You can say a lot with more than just words.”
Amelia Arvesen is a Herald staff writer. Email her at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @AmeliaArvesen.