More than 400 special needs teens and adults stepped into glittering gowns and tailored tuxedos on Sunday night to serve as the guests of honor at the 7th annual “A Night To Remember,” a formal dinner dance coordinated by Discovery Christian Church in Cranberry Township.
Jodi Brennan, the event's guest coordinator, said the first event in 2012 attracted about 50 special needs adults.
“People just have such a wonderful time that they tell their friends and they tell their friends,” Brennan said of the explosion in attendance.
The female guests were treated to free hairstyling, makeup and manicures at the Regional Learning Alliance by a legion of smiling stylists from various salons in the region who volunteered their time.
As the guests and their buddies waited for the stretch limousines to ferry them from the RLA to the dinner dance at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel in Warrendale, they enjoyed a juggler on stilts, magicians and a handful of Disney princesses who mingled and posed with the dapper guests.
Buddies, dressed in suits and dresses, waited by age groups at the RLA to be paired with a guest.
“I think this is really a great way to help people in our community and it's such a fun thing to be part of,” said Discovery Church member Haley Salva, 18. “They deserve to feel as special as anyone.”
Carson Brethauer, 17, also a member of Discovery, served as a buddy for the first time on Sunday night. He waited patiently in a white suit and tie as the guests and their families poured into the RLA to check in.
“I've always wanted to help out someone with special needs because sometimes they're not always invited to stuff,” Carson said.
Angel Pedley of Butler has attended for the past six years with her sister, Brandy, who has autism. The girls, clad in sea foam and red gowns, respectively, got their hair done in side-by-side chairs at the RLA before the dinner dance.
“It gives everyone a chance to socialize and have fun without being judged,” Angel said. “I think it's amazing that they provide this event for everyone.”
The girls' mother, Donna Pedley, said Brandy has attended A Night To Remember for each of its seven years.
“It gets her out among her peers, both disabled and nondisabled,” Pedley said. “She has a great time.”
She marveled at the dozens of volunteers, clad in yellow T-shirts, who traversed the RLA looking for guests who they may be able to help, as well as Discovery Church for hosting the classy evening.
“They really go above and beyond,” Pedley said. “Instead of trying to hide the people with disabilities, they bring them out.”
Diane Krnaich of North Huntingdon, Westmoreland County, watched her daughter, Taylor, 17, have her hair expertly curled by stylist Cayla Holland of Bella Capelli Salon in Monroeville.
Taylor wore a flowy black dress of cocktail length with a rhinestone bodice. Her blingy shoes matched her dress perfectly.
“She loves any kind of parties like this,” Krnaich said.
Taylor admitted to feeling excited about the dinner dance, and most looked forward to eating and throwing down some moves on the dance floor to the sound of her favorite artist, Taylor Swift.
Abigail Caperell, 17, of Latrobe enjoyed the tall juggler and her encounter with Cinderella at the RLA, where she had her hair and makeup done. The first-time guest said the prep party at the RLA was more fun than she imagined.
“I didn't know what to expect,” Abigail said. “I feel awesome.”
Her mother, Rachel Battistoni, said A Night To Remember is all Abigail has been talking about for the past month, and it did not disappoint.
“They get to feel just as amazing as other girls do at their proms,” she said.
Stephen Spinneweber of Knox, Clarion County, dressed in a white three-piece tuxedo for A Night To Remember. He looked forward to the juggler and dancing to country music.
“I just want to have fun,” Stephen said.
When the guests and their buddies arrived at the DoubleTree, they climbed out of the limos and beamed at the hundreds of people who waited to cheer for them as they were announced.
Most strutted like celebrities down the red carpet set up at the hotel entrance.
Thumping dance music blasted as Discovery Church member and event founder Bryan Gratton announced each guest when they approached the red carpet. Those in the bleachers and standing along the red carpet erupted in applause and a cacophony of hoots to welcome them.
Many guests waved, pointed, raised both hands or danced down the red carpet before entering the DoubleTree, to the delight of their families who looked on or held their phones up to get a picture or video.
Some guests high-fived those behind the velvet ropes along the red carpet, many of whom held colorful signs welcoming the guests and their buddies to the dinner dance.
Inside, those in attendance were greeted in the well-decorated banquet room by “Star Wars” characters before tucking into an upscale dinner and dancing to music spun by a DJ.
Gratton said a committee spends all year gathering sponsors and planning the event.
He said Jesus counsels his followers not to throw parties for the rich, politicians or those who can pay them back in some way.
“He said to do it for the people who don't get invited,” Gratton said.
The party, which included a balloon artist, magicians and other entertainment in addition to dinner and dancing, continued until 9 p.m.