AP NEWS

At this Santa Fe prom, everyone is royalty

May 6, 2019

Virginia Valdez was getting her nails done a tint of pink late Saturday morning in preparation for prom.

It wasn’t the first such gala for 69-year-old Valdez. Back when she was 16, she said, she was named prom queen at Los Lunas High.

Sitting next to her in the makeshift salon — a temporary setup in an upcoming yoga studio off Rufina Street — were 9-year-old Mariah and her two older sisters. Volunteer stylists were braiding the girls’ hair. They were among scores of promgoers getting ready — gowns and tuxes, hair, nails and makeup — for an Alice-in-Wonderland-themed extravaganza.

It was Santa Fe’s fifth annual Special Needs Prom, held at the south-side Blaze Christian Fellowship. Dozens of volunteers had transformed the church into an elaborate paper-flower-and-toadstool fantasy, with Wonderland-worthy cakes, cookies and other confections, a throne and a table covered with crowns.

At this prom, where anyone with a disability was welcome, everyone was crowned king or queen.

A giant rabbit with a massive pocket watch paced Saturday afternoon near the gala’s entrance — the “rabbit hole” — beckoning promgoers inside. “I’m late, I’m late,” he chanted, tapping his watch.

As the sun beat down, a couple of hundred children and adults filed slowly through the door, dressed to the nines, their faces radiant and their eyes filled with wonder at the magical world blooming inside.

At the center of this achievement, funded by private donations and pulled together by local businesses and community people with big hearts, was Angelique Chavez.

“I cry every year, I just … I love it,” said a teary-eyed Chavez, named as one of The New Mexican’s 10 Who Made a Difference in 2017.

Initially, she intended to organize a special event for Capital High School students with disabilities who didn’t feel comfortable attending the mainstream prom with their peers.

The first event, a small lunchtime dance at the school, was inspired by conversations Chavez had with friends of her own children. Like her son Jarred, now 21, who was born with hydrocephalus, and her daughter Savaughna, 18, who has microcephaly, the other teens had disabilities and feared their needs wouldn’t be accommodated at the school’s prom.

Chavez was determined to create an event where even kids with extensive needs could take center stage.

“Here, their peers are just like them, so nobody stands out — nobody’s different. Everyone looks beautiful,” Chavez said Saturday. “If you have an autistic kid in the back who’s going back and forth, yelling, clapping their hands, they don’t stand out here. If you have a kid in a wheelchair, they don’t stand out here.”

The spring formal has grown from that first affair in Capital High’s cafeteria.

The Olive Garden has catered four out of the five Special Needs Proms, and Blaze Christian Fellowship has hosted three of the events. The themes have varied: “Under the Sea,” “The Great Gatsby,” “The Secret Garden,” “Willy Wonka.” So have the guests.

They now come from far beyond Capital — places like Albuquerque, Rio Rancho, Moriarty, Taos, Española and Pojoaque — and range in age from 9 to 69.

Chavez couldn’t do it alone. She relies on co-organizer Yvonne Encinias and an army of other aides.

When she was approached by Encinias about providing salon space in the Fox Road studio, Aviana Garcia was eager to help.

“I was all about it,” Garcia said.

Other volunteers spent some 300 hours preparing the church, said Encinias, who served as the Queen of Hearts on Saturday, shouting “Off with their heads!” as people arrived.

Chavez rarely stopped moving at the prom, greeting guests and directing volunteers to bring in more tables and chairs.

In the end, it was the prom’s biggest crowd yet, with more than 250 attendees and caregivers.

“I’m so excited for them,” Chavez said, before running off into Wonderland.