It was like any other school formal, down to the satin dresses, untucked suits and thumping pop music. At first glance, the only sign the ballroom in the District's elegant Willard Hotel was playing host to something special Sunday was that, unlike an average dance, there were no wallflowers at the sixth annual Cinderella Ball.
"Here the playing field is leveled," said Ron McCormick, vice president of the House, a student leadership center. "We're all on common ground."
Wearing a glittery peach dress that accented her burgundy glasses, 14-year-old Savannah Rogers smiled shyly as she nodded her head and answered "yes ma'am" when asked whether getting dressed up and dancing were things she looked forward to.
Savannah is autistic and was born with Cornelia de Lange syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that can delay physical development.
"Starting tomorrow, she'll be talking about next year," said Savannah's mother, Janet Rogers. "All of the kids talk about it and enjoy this event.
"It's a whole different atmosphere. Children with disabilities still fit in and parents celebrate one thing: their children."
The Rogers family paid $1,500 to sponsor a table because they hadn't bought tickets on time. The ball has gotten so popular that a waiting list forms if the venue is too small.
"It was worth every penny," Mrs. Rogers said. Savannah's "very excited about it. It gives us something to look forward to."
Joining the Rogers family were a few hundred attendees. Couples held hands on the dance floor, while boys fist-pumped and girls twirled in their dresses.
While the daily goal of the Woodbridge, Va.-based House is to offer lifestyle resources while helping its students learn life skills and work on athletics and academics, the ball is a day set aside for its students who otherwise might not get a chance at the ordinary.
"Our students began dreaming; dreaming about what they needed, what they wanted to do," said Helen McCormick, the center's president who is married to Mr. McCormick. "This is not a story of hard knocks but knocking hard."
House members work hard to get donations, from money to such necessities as shoes, gowns and accessories "from around the world,"Mr.McCormick said.
Woodbridge resident Maria Allen — whose 19-year-old daughter, Jennifer, attended the ball — praised organizers for providing an event that children and their families might otherwise not have been able to afford.
Sitting at lunch together, the mother-daughter duo complemented each other in their dresses: Maria Allen in purple and her daughter in a blue-and-black gown.
"I got my hair done today. I picked the dress for the colors," said Jennifer Allen, who is legally blind. "I like the music."
"I like that the Marines are here," Maria Allen said with a wink, before adding proudly that her daughter would be attending Northern Virginia Community College.
Wheelchairs were interspersed among dining chairs at each table. The Marines in their dress uniforms laughed and talked with family members and smiled for photos with students who looked at them in awe. Earlier in the day, the Marines presented their swordsfor the ball attendees to walk under.
The Marines received the second-loudest applause and standing ovation behind Brie-Anna Davis, a recent high school graduate who won the Kyle Maynard No Excuses Award.
Brie-Anna plans to attend George Mason University, despite teachers telling her mother years ago that she would go no further than a sheltered workshop because of her developmental disabilities.
"They're 'abled' students," Mr. McCormick said, "not disabled."
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