Isle of Wight hosts therapeutic recreation prom

Published 7:20 am Wednesday, April 3, 2024

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Isle of Wight County Parks and Recreation and the cities of Suffolk, Chesapeake, Norfolk and Virginia Beach hosted a prom for Hampton Roads adults with disabilities on March 9 at New Branch Farms, a wedding venue in Rushmere.

Sam and Wendy Mills, who own the venue, served as DJ and photographer, respectively. The event was organized by Jaimie Belch, whom the county hired last year as its first-ever certified therapeutic recreation specialist.

“It was an amazing event, just so much joy,” Wendy said.

Belch describes her work as using recreation to help individuals with disabilities improve their quality of life by working on their social skills and potentially finding a new hobby.

“It’s an opportunity once you’re out of school … to get together and socialize and be in a group of individuals who share common abilities and goals,” Belch said.

Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, adults ages 18-21 can continue to receive special education and related services through a locality’s public school system, but frequently lack opportunities for social interaction with their peers once they age out of that option upon turning 22.

The concept for the prom, which Belch said she hopes will become an annual event, is similar to “Night to Shine,” a nationwide series of dances for teens and adults with disabilities organized by local churches through retired NFL quarterback Tim Tebow’s foundation. For Isle of Wight’s version, which was open to ages 15 and up, Belch and her counterparts in the neighboring cities’ Parks and Recreation departments each handled a separate component of the event. Belch was tasked with finding a host site.

She also made sure to include what she called a “sensory room” with calming lights and music for individuals with autism and other conditions.

“Sometimes the music and crowds can be a little overwhelming for people,” Belch said.

Seven attendees are members of Hands & Hearts, a Smithfield-based program that describes its mission as providing adults with intellectual disabilities with meaningful work and creative opportunities. Kristin Wilda founded Hands & Hearts in 2016, originally as a program of Trinity United Methodist Church, but branched out as her own independent nonprofit in 2022 when she opened Something Special, a thrift store on Main Street benefitting Hands & Hearts where many of the program’s participants are employed.

The next event Isle of Wight will host for area residents with disabilities is its fourth annual field day at Nike Park in Carrollton, which the county’s 2019-created special needs task force debuted in 2021. Last year, Isle of Wight’s Board of Supervisors reorganized the task force into a standing 10-member Commission on Adults with Disabilities.