Going for the gold: Organizing special needs prom nets Woodbury Girl Scout top award

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The inaugural Unified Prom at East Ridge High School was a big deal for special needs students.

For many, it was their first prom, their first chance to dress up, dance and dine.

The April 29 party featured a red carpet procession, where each kid, escorted by a classmate, wore a sash that was emblazoned with their name.

Nothing could have kept Kiley Robertson away from the party. Not only because she had so many special needs friends, but because the prom was her idea.

Robertson, a member of troop 51437 in Woodbury, spent a year organizing the event to help earn the Gold Award, the highest honor in Girl Scouts. One of the prerequisites is the completion of a Take Action project, where candidates identify a specific problem in a community and devise and implement a plan to fix it. Robertson looked as far away as Bloomington before discovering that the problem to her solution was literally right next door.

One of her neighbors is Barbara Tigges, a special education teacher at East Ridge. She informed Robertson of the Unified Club, whose goal is to help special needs students meet and mix with the rest of the students.

"She heard that I was looking for a Gold Award project," Robertson said.

The raucous atmosphere of a prom can prove too stressful for a child with Down syndrome, autism or other disability.

"They don't go to many dances because of the light and the sound," said Nicole Woehrmann, business education teacher and an advisor to the Unified Club. "They don't feel like they fit in."

Robertson approached Woehrmann about organizing a prom that would feature a more controlled environment — less sensory overload, more low-key activities.

She pitched it the kids in the club. They liked the idea. She submitted a proposal to the River Valley Girl Scout Council. They liked it.

The Gold Award is earned by less than 6 percent of eligible Girl Scouts. And while there are specific rules in place, a girl who decides to accept the challenge is pretty much on her own, said Denise Drost, leader of Robertson's troop.

"It is up to the Girl Scout to carry through the project," Drost said. "I think it's difficult for high school students to do this all on their own, where they are figuring out who to contact, who to speak to and then to get others involved."

Many of the parents of Unified Club students volunteered the night of the prom. The theme, UP, was inspired by the Disney movie of the same name. The girls got their hair and makeup done free courtesy the Minnesota School of Cosmetology. Local photographer Kathleen Smith donated her time to take photos. Gigi's Cupcakes donated dessert.

"It was a success," said Unified Club member Bryce Smith, 17, during an end of year ice cream social for the Unified club.

Lavonte Smith, 18, said he enjoys the low-key vibe of the Unified Club activities.

"It's like a nice little community where everyone can be themselves and have a good time," he said. "It's not one of those stressful extracurricular activities."

The Unified Club was founded during the 2015-16 school year by Grace Millington, Halston Greenlay, Braden Sydor, Parker Sydor, Elle Bombardir and Jaxon Bombardir.