ZACHARY, LA (WAFB) - Through no fault of anyone really, special needs students at some schools do not feel part of the student body.
Because of the challenges certain students with needs present, faculty and staff often struggle with how to make special needs students feel included in things like homecoming, school organizations, and proms without compromising their safety. Mobility can also present faculty with challenges which can quickly become an issue especially in large groups or crowds.
No one knows this better than Mandie Parnell, the mother of a special needs child.
"My son's non-verbal," Mandie explained. So crowds can be a problem.
Mandie's son Landen is a student at Zachary High School. They have two incredible teachers who work pretty exclusively with special needs students: Jamie Byrd and Lydia Wells.
"Jamie's a pretty awesome person," Mandie continued. "This is the only thing she's ever wanted to do is just help special needs kids."
Mandie explained how Jamie saw one of her special needs kids get elected to the homecoming court at Zachary High, and included with that was an invitation to the homecoming dance.
"Jamie saw how that made her whole world and made her very happy to be able to go to a dance," Mandy said. "And so she began thinking why not our kids? Why can't they go to a prom?"
So Jamie Byrd started organizing a prom for just special needs kids. Then other members of the student body, Bronco's baseball players and cheerleaders specifically, wanted to help. They wanted to ask the special needs kids to be 'their date' at the prom!
"It was an opportunity for her kids to have a prom without having to go to a bigger prom," explained Zachary High principal Joe Leblanc. And as for members of the student body who acted as dates?
"They had a hoot and our baseball players and cheerleaders probably had as much fun at their prom as they did at their own prom at Boudreaux's I promise you," Leblanc said, beaming with the proud smile at such a wonderful program.
So it was an easy nomination, Mandy Parnell said, to suggest that Jamie Byrd become the focus of WAFB's Hand It On recognition.
We all gathered in the Zachary High cafeteria during the particular lunch period where Jamie Byrd and her students eat every day.
"OK Jamie Byrd," Mandie said, slyly approaching Jamie at lunch. "I just wanted to tell you how much I love you and everything that you do for the kids here. It is about special needs prom because without you there wouldn't have been a special needs prom. So we wanted to go ahead and give you the donation of the $300 Hand It On."
"Thank you so very much," Jamie said as she embraced Mandie. "What do I get to do with this? Can we have another prom before school ends?"
Special needs children have very, very special parents and family. I've often heard parents share stories of how very blessed they themselves are because of the gift of their special needs child.
That was an unexpected miracle at Zachary High School as well. You see, the baseball players and cheerleaders who acted as prom dates for the special needs prom didn't leave their giving spirit on the dance floor. They continue to this day to interact with their prom dates throughout the school day, every day.
In fact, the day we were there for our surprise Hand It On visit, we saw baseball players, cheerleaders, and other eating lunch with their special needs dates! Principal Leblanc said this has become a way of life for these students.
There is no question in my mind children (and adults) with special needs are here to witness to each and every one of us in very special ways. Special needs? No, just special. Very special.
To nominate someone for WAFB's Hand It On program, simply send an e-mail to HandItOn@wafb.com. Make sure we have your contact information, especially your phone number.