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Students ‘dance their hearts out’ at the valley’s first Friendship Ball for kids and young adults

Aspen Middle School student Kiah Eklund, right, dances with Aspen Elementary School student Talia Casper on stage at the first-annual Buddy Program prom at TACAW in Willits on Saturday, March 16, 2024. "This is my first ever, ever, ever prom in my entire life. I'm really excited because you get to have food, mocktails, pictures, dancing, hanging out with your friends," Kiah said.
Kelsey Brunner
/
Aspen Public Radio
Aspen Middle School student Kiah Eklund, right, dances with Aspen Elementary School student Talia Casper on stage at the first-annual Buddy Program prom at TACAW in Willits on Saturday, March 16, 2024. "This is my first ever, ever, ever prom in my entire life. I'm really excited because you get to have food, mocktails, pictures, dancing, hanging out with your friends," Kiah said.

Prom is a rite of passage for students, but many get left out for lots of different reasons, including those with physical and developmental disabilities, who often aren’t made to feel welcome.

That’s why local schools in the Roaring Fork Valley teamed up with the national organization Best Buddies to make prom more accessible and fun for all.

During the valley’s first annual starry night-themed “Friendship Ball” on Saturday, The Arts Campus at Willits was decorated in colorful balloons. The lights were dimmed and a buffet lined one wall of the room.

Greeters handed out temporary tattoos to students, parents and community members dressed in sparkly outfits. The excitement was palpable.

“This is my first ever, ever, ever prom in my entire life,” said Kiah Eklund, who is in 7th grade at Aspen Middle School. “I'm really excited because you get to have food, mocktails, pictures, dancing, and hanging out with your friends.”

The Buddy Program decorated the tables with table clothes, sparkly decor, buttons and temporary tattoos to give the ambience of a school dance at TACAW on Saturday, March 16, 2024.
Kelsey Brunner
/
Aspen Public Radio
The Buddy Program decorated the tables with table clothes, sparkly decor, buttons and temporary tattoos to give the ambience of a school dance at TACAW on Saturday, March 16, 2024.

Eklund attended the dance with her mom, who let her wear makeup for the special occasion.

“A little bit of makeup: concealer, eye shadow and mascara,” Eklund said.

Eklund was born with down syndrome and started participating in Best Buddies earlier this school year.

Best Buddies, which started in the late 1980s at Georgetown University, is now offered all over the world, and it launched in local schools from Aspen to Glenwood Springs in the fall.

The free program matches students with intellectual and developmental disabilities with peers who do not have a disability.

Students participate in weekly activities together like buddy lunches and arts and crafts.

“I love being in Best Buddies because it affects my life, it's changing my life a whole lot,” Eklund said. “And it's all about making friends in the world and it's really, really good to make new friends.”

<i>Kiah Eklund, right, and her 8th grade best buddy, Logan Novak, make heart shapes with their hands at the Friendship Ball photo booth at TACAW on March 16, 2024. The national organization Best Buddies partnered with local schools to organize the community dance for students and young adults with disabilities.</i>
Eleanor Bennett
/
Aspen Public Radio
Kiah Eklund, right, and her 8th grade best buddy, Logan Novak, make heart shapes with their hands at the Friendship Ball photo booth at TACAW on March 16, 2024. The national organization Best Buddies partnered with local schools to organize the community dance for students and young adults with disabilities.

Eklund introduced me to her 8th grade best buddy, Logan Novak.

“When we started the program, Kiah came up to me and she was just like, 'I want you to be my buddy.' And I was like, 'Okay!' And then we've been buddies ever since and it's just been so awesome knowing her,” Novak said.

Even though Eklund and Novak didn’t get ready together, they coordinated their outfits ahead of the big night.

“She did tell me what she was going to wear and I did tell her what I was going to wear,” Novak said.

“I told her I was gonna wear this pink dress, star earrings, headband with braids, nail polish, and cool shoes,” Eklund added.

Novak asked Eklund if she wanted to take pictures before dancing, and they headed off to a photo booth that was stocked with glittery hats and giant plastic glasses.

The Buddy Program prom held a photo booth, a buffet of chef-prepared food, and lots of dancing and music at TACAW on March 16, 2024.
Kelsey Brunner
/
Aspen Public Radio
The Buddy Program prom held a photo booth, a buffet of chef-prepared food, and lots of dancing and music at TACAW on March 16, 2024.

Over at the buffet table, 8th grader Ann Perlmutter was serving herself a dinner of mac and cheese and ice cream.

“It's better than, like, McDonald's and fast food and the food at home,” she said, explaining that she especially loved the mac and cheese.

Perlmutter is a student director for Best Buddies at Aspen Middle School.

Her own experience with autism inspired her to be a mentor to younger students in the program.

“It’s good to meet other people with the same kind of thing and other disabilities and like, get a chance to hang out with them so they feel included also,” Perlmutter said.

Kelsey Brunner
/
Aspen Public Radio

As dinner wrapped up, local DJ Naka G started playing Beyonce’s latest hit.

Colorful lights flashed, a disco ball was spinning, and students, including some in wheelchairs and others wearing sensory headphones, crowded onto the dance floor.

Best Buddies advisor Renee Giles swayed to the music with several other parents as her daughter Talia Casper danced on stage.

“Oh my God, my daughter is spunky, vivacious. She loves people. She's kind and empathetic,” Giles said.

It makes Giles sad that kids like her daughter with neurodiversity don’t always get to go to gatherings like prom.

“You know, she's not always invited to all the birthday parties and she's not always invited to all the events,” Giles said. “And it's not because she's not an amazing kid, which she is, but you know, she's a little different.”

And Giles said the Friendship Ball isn’t just for the kids.

“You put so much energy and love into your children and they're fine, you know, they're so resilient,” she said. “It's the parents who I think sometimes need the support.”

<i>Renee Giles, left, and Jody Eklund, right, watch their daughters dance on stage with DJ Naka G during the starry-night themed Friendship Ball at TACAW on March 16, 2024. Giles helps run the new Best Buddies club at Aspen Middle School and Eklund’s daughter is a participant in the program.</i>
Eleanor Bennett
/
Aspen Public Radio
Renee Giles, left, and Jody Eklund, right, watch their daughters dance on stage with DJ Naka G during the starry-night themed Friendship Ball at TACAW on March 16, 2024. Giles helps run the new Best Buddies club at Aspen Middle School and Eklund’s daughter is a participant in the program.

Giles said it’s refreshing to be in a room full of parents "who get it" — and wonderful to be watching her daughter Talia dancing on stage.

“They're dancing their hearts out and they're having the best time ever,” Giles said.

For her part, Talia Casper loved requesting songs and spending time with friends and family at her first big dance.

“What do you think of it? Would you do this again?,” I asked.

“Yes. I felt, I felt a little special for being here today,” she replied.

As for Kiah Eklund, she had a pretty good time at prom too.

“This is way fun to be here. More than doing chores,” Eklund said.

As the evening came to a close, DJ Naka G handed Eklund the mic and she invited everyone to join her for one last dance.

Copyright 2024 Aspen Public Radio . To see more, visit Aspen Public Radio.

Growing up in the valley listening to KAJX in her parents’ car on the way to school, Eleanor learned the power and urgency of community storytelling. She was further captivated by the medium while interning at APR after graduating from Middlebury College in 2015.