The atmosphere inside the Sparta High School cafeteria crackles with excitement.
Hundreds of people fill the room wearing natty suits, fashionable tuxedos and elegant evening gowns while enjoying a lasagna meal, taking selfies, cutting a rug on the dance floor and tooling around town in limousines.
But not Andrew Grettenberger.
The Sparta senior is clad in a gray Sparta High School T-shirt. A walkie-talkie drapes his neck in case he needs to respond to requests for help.
Like the others, Andrew is at the Best Prom Ever, an annual dinner dance for teens and adults with any disability that drew 900 people from around the region to enjoy a night out at no cost.
But for students like Andrew, Best Prom Ever is a service-learning project. That means he and his classmates plan the annual dinner-dance, starting a year in advance. He’s a student of special education teacher Renne Wyman’s program for those with mild cognitive impairments.
Andrew has attended seven Best Proms, and this is the final one he helped plan.
“Planning the prom means selling the idea to vendors and having fun, and that’s the best part,” Andrew said. “Some people may be in a wheelchair, and getting out to the prom makes them happy.
“The main thing is I’m helping and running around the building, and I do sweat a lot.”
Andrew indicates he would like to say more, but he receives a call on his two-way radio and politely excuses himself.
Months before the prom, Wyman’s students learn how to promote the event on social media, contact vendors and cold call businesses that may sponsor the cost of the prom.
“I could teach this in the classroom, but it’s not as real as when they need to purchase something and need to check seven stores in Grand Rapids,” Wyman said.
Sophomore Kayle Bigelow agrees with Wyman. She immersed herself in planning the prom, helped oversee the decorations, ordered balloons and tables, called people to sponsor and called again to thank them for their donations.
She proved to herself she can juggle a number of details and get them done, she said.
Sparta students help plan the prom, but its reputation precedes itself for what it means to people who don’t mix socially with others very often.
“Many are in group homes and don’t enjoy many fun recreational activities,” Wyman said. “We’re providing an event free of charge for people underserved in the broader community.”
There’s an even broader purpose of Best Prom Ever, she added. A spirit of camaraderie occurs when the school district and the community at large that spans five counties —Kent, Ottawa, Ionia, Kalamazoo and Montcalm — work in solidarity.
“The community of Sparta comes alive and falls in love with this project and more to the point, the people who attend it,” Wyman said.
“There is a hunger in this community to have connections made, to inspire and express joy and emotion. It’s as memorable a night for volunteers as it is for the guests.”
And sometimes it’s just about having fun.
For junior Jerry Scott, who’s wearing a snazzy navy blue suit, sky blue shirt and striped tie, the Best Prom Ever is a chance to demonstrate what he’s capable of on the dance floor.
“I have some moves,” Jerry said. “I can do the sprinkler and mow the lawn.”