A Prom to Remember

In a time where everyone looks for ways to be inclusive, Karen Dusterberg organized a landmark event for students at six high schools.

By Patrick Williams

 karen dusterberg

karen dusterberg

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When Apex Friendship High School opened in the summer of 2015, sophomore Karen Dusterberg didn’t wait to make her mark.
    Before the first week of class had ended, she started the school’s first student-led club, a chapter of Project Unify, which is a collaboration between the North Carolina High School Athletic Association and Special Olympics North Carolina, involving more than 120 high schools across the state. Project Unify is a service organization for mainstream and special-needs students, and the members help foster an environment where their special-needs peers can enjoy a full social experience.
    As co-president of her school’s Project Unify for three years, Dusterberg wanted to do something special in her senior year, so she organized a full-fledged prom for special-needs students—not only for Apex Friendship, but also for students from six other high schools across western Wake. The result was a special night for everyone.
Cary Living: When did you first realize you wanted to work with special-needs kids?

Dusterberg: I grew up with an aunt who had special needs. She passed away when I was only 7 years old, so I never reached the point where I could understand why she was different and mentally slower than others. I guess part of me lived with regret that I never understood her for who she was while she was alive. When given the opportunity to work with special-needs kids for the first time, I felt compelled to do so.

 Matthew Leonards, a rising senior, danced to practically every song and is already asking about the next Project Unify prom.

Matthew Leonards, a rising senior, danced to practically every song and is already asking about the next Project Unify prom.

When did you have that opportunity?

It was my eighth-grade year at Salem Middle School. They had a program called Peer Helpers that was offered as an elective, where you could assist in the special-education classroom every day for a semester.

How did Project Unify start at
your school?

The teachers of the special-ed class I worked in at Salem encouraged me, so I decided to take initiative and start a chapter in high school. When I came to Apex Friendship my sophomore year, I saw a huge opportunity since it was a first-year school with no student-led clubs yet. I spoke to a friend of mine with similar interests, and together we went to the school’s special-education teacher and asked her to advise the club. From there we put together social media accounts, set up flyers, and made announcements to encourage students to come to our interest meeting. I was shocked by the response. We had more than 70 people at the meeting, just a month after the school opened. I expected maybe 15, at most.

So how did you get the idea for an inclusive prom for Project Unify?

Our original club advisor put the idea of an inclusive prom in my head shortly after we started the club. I think she saw how amazing our school was to have so many students involved and realized we were capable of something big. Since the day she suggested it, I’ve been dreaming of carrying it out.

 16 year-old Faith DANCES with two friends.

16 year-old Faith DANCES with two friends.

It’s a major undertaking, organizing an event like that. How did you go about it?

This year, more than 200 people signed up for Project Unify and more than 150 stayed fully involved in the club all year. I had so many passionate people there to assist me, so I knew we could make it happen. I realized that this being my senior year meant it was now or never. I reached out to Apex United Methodist Church, which hosted the event in its gym, and David Michael, a local DJ, did an amazing job with the entertainment. Then we had some local businesses that provided food and donated money for our other costs, so the whole event was free for everyone who attended.

Obviously the event was for the whole club, but the special-needs students were the guests of honor. How did it go?

I don’t think I’ve ever been in a room surrounded by so many truly happy faces. All of our members had the time of their lives. It didn’t appear they were volunteering, they were just having fun. The special-needs kids all seemed to leave their parents and join their peers on the dance floor and, while that doesn’t sound like much, that really meant something. For them to truly experience a high school activity like prom was outstanding.

Not everyone has a knack for working with classmates who have disabilities. From your experience, what is the key?

The most important thing is to understand that they aren’t children and that we are the same age. Some students may be slower and at a disadvantage in some areas, but what they need is a friend or someone kind to guide them. That’s what our members [become] for them. Often, the people who couldn’t see themselves working with special-needs kids are the ones who are best at it.

How do the mainstream kids in Project Unify work with the special-needs students at the school?

Project Unify allows mainstream students to go to lunch, hang out in the classroom, and assist in a gym class with the kids every single day. Twice a year, we take them on field trips to the Special Olympics. We have two Unified soccer teams and a cheer team made up of both the special-needs students and our club members. We also exchange valentines and have parties at the holidays during our lunches. Our club is really a way to allow special-needs students to form friendships with kids outside of their classroom and experience high school just like any other high schooler would.

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What other interests did you have in high school?

Project Unify was probably the biggest part of my life in high school, but my other focus was softball. I’ve pitched on varsity for three years. I was the team MVP my sophomore year, and I was a captain as a junior and senior. I missed my freshman season at Apex High School because I had two elbow surgeries, so I’m really grateful I was able to come back and play the rest of my high school career.

What are your college plans?

I will be attending East Carolina University and studying special education and recreational therapy in hopes of becoming an occupational therapist. I want to work with special-needs kids and help with everyday functions such as motor and speech skills.

What has your experience with Project Unify taught you about your peers?

The most thrilling thing I’ve learned is just the number of people willing to help and wanting to make a difference. Most people probably didn’t join this club with much experience or a knack for working with the kids, but so many picked it up naturally. Working with special-needs kids is the type of thing where, if you want to do it, you’ll probably be good at it. It amazes me every day to watch everyone do such great work and have so much fun doing it.