How to Host a Prom for Guests with Special Needs
By Kelly Holland
1. Pray & Present
Take the idea of special needs focused event first to the Lord and then to the leadership at your church. Details like who, what, when, and where are essential, but why is most important for your church leaders to hear. It is a good idea to show videos and pictures from other churches who have thrown similar events so they can get an idea of what the night might look like. Approach leaders with information regarding the event budget, advertising, handicap accessibility, security, and room usage in your church.
For our church, the why to hosting a JOY prom was easy because it supported the mission of our church. Our church’s mission statement is “Building a community to reach a community” and within that framework, we operate on four engagements: 1. Engage with Christ 2. Engage with each other 3. Engage with the least 4. Engage with the lost. In Luke 14, Jesus tells his disciples that their party invitation lists should include those who are never invited. (Luke 14:12-14 The Message) The JOY Prom gives our church the opportunity to engage people who are often overlooked. We have the opportunity to make “the least” the most.
We develop our budget for the JOY Prom around a projected number of guests, which includes honorees, their accompanying parent or caregiver and event volunteers. This estimated attendance is the key determinant for budgeting expenses and soliciting donations. Because we serve a full meal to 700 people, food expense is the largest part of our $5000 event budget. Some churches may find it helpful to set a guest limit and cap the attendance after a maximum number of RSVP’s. We keep the cost of the event down by sending letters to community businesses several months before the prom. We share a little about the event and invite florists, party stores, restaurants, bakeries, etc to be a part of the exciting night. Many of these businesses catch the vision and help by donating goods and services or providing discounts. At the bottom of this post is an example letter we use. We follow up on these letters with a phone call. In past years we have received donations and discounts for dinner, beverages, dessert, horse-and-carriage rides, formal wear, boutonnieres, corsages, decorations, and photography.
2. Outline the Evening
Establish a timeline for the event and indicate what activities will happen and at what times. Make sure times are highlighted on event flyers and communicated to volunteers. Parents and caregivers appreciate detail schedules so that they can prepare the participants for the evening activities.
Our guests are told that they will be presented on the red carpet between 5 and 6 PM. After guests arrive and are announced, they check-in at the registration desk and then place their belongings at an assigned table. They then are free to participate in any of the following stations:
- air hockey
- Wii games
- horse & carriage rides
- classic car rides
- photography booths
We serve dinner from 6-7 PM and Dancing begins promptly at 7PM. We announce dinner over the PA system at 5:45 and guests begin to sit down. We leave the stations open through dinner in case someone didn’t get a chance to go on the horse and carriage ride or get their nails painted. The dance floor opens right at 7 and there is usually not a soul to be found anywhere else the rest of the night.
3. Build a volunteer base
Create flyers and begin recruiting help from within your church. This event really cannot be done well without a dozen or so key volunteers who have “caught the vision” and can serve as a support system, sounding board and cheerleaders for the JOY Prom.
Create volunteer roles for church members to sign up for. Make an announcement on a Sunday morning about the planned event and ask for volunteers from the church body. Our bulletin insert (included in the forms below) is perforated and allows potential volunteers to rip off the bottom and drop it by the JOY Prom table after the worship services. Once volunteers sign up for a specific area of service they receive a packet in the mail with more details about their role. Below is an example of the additional information someone would receive that signed up to work in the paparazzi role.
Our church’s student pastor promotes the JOY prom during a student service and encourages small groups to volunteer together. As a result, many teens serve along with their small group leader. Having a leader is helpful in keeping student helpers on task. Teens and pre-teens are great food servers and can make the red carpet and dance floor a lot more fun for the guests.
Because guests come with a parent or caregiver, no guest is ever alone with a volunteer. Requiring guests to come accompanied eases the job of our church volunteers and provides a safer experience for everyone involved. During the event unused areas of the church are closed and locked. This ensures that everyone stays in the main parts of our building and there are no chances for anyone to be alone behind a closed door. Our church asks the sheriff’s department to bring a couple uniformed officers to patrol the parking lot and facility throughout the evening.
4. Create Buzz & Invite Guests
Contact the local newspaper and news channel and invite them to publicize the event by doing a story or allowing a church representative to talk about the upcoming JOY prom on a news program. Set up a booth at community events and hand out flyers. Chances are, people in your community have never heard of a event like this and will be eager get involved. Consider publicizing the event through:
- Special education departments
- Day-centers for adults with disabilities
- Physicians’ office lobbies
- Therapy facilities
- Community boards
- Church website
- Social media outlets
As guests begin to RSVP, be sure to keep a list to effectively manage the event.
5. Get the Party Started!
This is your church’s opportunity to spotlight a community of people who are so often overlooked – some have never been invited to a party! I love seeing the expression on the faces of the guests as they enter our church to cheers and applause. As is true for serving in a church’s special needs ministry, the event often blesses the volunteers even more than the guests. As a direct result of the Joy Prom, our church has added families to our faith community and discovered new volunteers for our special needs ministry. ~ Kelly Holland
Example Prom Forms:
Letter to businesses soliciting donations and discounts: LettertobusinessesJP
Bulletin insert for volunteer recruitment: Joy Prom Insert Back
Kelly Holland is the Director of Access, the Special Needs Ministry of Grace Fellowship Church in Johnson City, Tennessee. Access serves more than a dozen families every Sunday and throughout the week. Kelly also coordinates Grace’s annual Joy Prom, which has grown over the last several years to welcome 700 guests! If you want more information on hosting a Joy Prom, contact Kelly at firstname.lastname@example.org.