Put on at the Cherokee County Recreation Center in downtown Woodstock, the 12th annual Friends Formal is given by a committee of parent and teacher volunteers who rely solely on donations to pull off the party.
The dance welcomes all high school and middle school special needs students in the county as well as their general education peers, many of whom participate in clubs like Friends Club and Peer Helpers that work to incorporate special education students into the everyday high school environment.
“Everybody is actually welcome to come,” Kathy Dowda-Taylor said of the event. “It’s not just exclusive to the students.”
Dowda-Taylor said there is no charge for attendees, and her son, Matthew Taylor, a freshman at Cherokee High, has gone every year since he started sixth grade at Teasley Middle School.
Just like any other dance, the students will get to enjoy a deejay and get professional photographs made at the event, which is themed “Enchantment Under the Sea.”
However, the dance is not formally sponsored by Cherokee Schools, but put together by many parent and teacher volunteers with help from local businesses.
“The main focus of the formal is to bring special needs students and regular ed students into a setting where they can be totally themselves,” she said. “Everybody likes to feel special. Everybody likes to get dressed up, to look their best and to be included.”
“It’s an awesome opportunity just for them to have their own night,” she added. “It’s not that they can’t go to the regular prom, but this event starts much earlier (at 7 p.m.) and it gives them more of an opportunity to meet people outside of their own school because it’s countywide.”
Matthew’s date to the event this year is Ansley Key, a junior at Cherokee and member of the school’s Peer Helpers.
Matthew and Ansley were paired up during Wednesday’s Cherokee County School District Special Olympics event, where he cheerfully greeted old friends with hugs and smiled when asked about going to the dance.
“I bought you a flower,” he told Ansley on the football field.
The duo became friends when Cherokee High put on a holiday play featuring special needs students. Ansley, a drama student, helped create roles for students like Matthew, who provided the sound effects for the train’s whistle in “The Polar Express.”
“We helped them with their lines,” Ansley said. “It’s a lot of fun.”
“She’s really been great,” Dowda-Taylor said of Ansley. “This is his first year at Cherokee so she’s really played a big part in helping him transition from middle school to high school and be happy with the change.”
Kathy said the Friends Club is great about helping integrate special needs students like her son. On Wednesday, he and Ansley competed together in the softball toss and several other events. Ansley said she hopes to one day become a special needs teacher.
“I want to create a special drama program so special needs kids can do it, like the Christmas play but all year long so they can feel accepted,” she said.
Before that, Ansley will need to make sure she keeps up with her date this weekend. Matthew said his favorite thing about the formal is all the dancing.
“Hey Ya!” he exclaimed, naming his favorite song by Outkast.
The 18-year-old also showed off his two favorite dance moves: raising the roof and dipping down low.
Another exciting part of the evening?
“Longhorn (Steakhouse) dinner,” before the dance, he said, adding he’ll be having a cheeseburger.
Dowda-Taylor said all donations and sponsors are appreciated in helping with the event.
“We work really hard and we do it on a tight budget,” she said. “But people are very generous because it’s for a great cause.”
Anyone looking to donate time or needed items for the event can contact Ruth Fuller at Cherokee High. Donations are tax-deductable.