DURHAM - The woman saw the gaggle of teenage girls enter the bridal shop. Among them was a young woman in a wheelchair, there, like the others, to pick out a dress for prom.
She watched as the girl approached a store worker.
“I’m sorry, I’m not going to have anything for you,” she overheard the worker say. “There is nothing that is going to be appropriate for you in the chair.”
The woman marched over to the pair.
“What you are doing is illegal,” she told the worker, “she should wear whatever she wants to wear.”
Infuriated by the incident, Naomi Sjostedt-Smith decided to create another way for high school girls to find their prom dresses.
“If she didn’t look different she wouldn’t have been treated differently,” said Sjostedt-Smith.
She went online asking for donated clothes and the response was overwhelming.
Hundreds of dresses were donated in a matter of weeks. The Hilton North Raleigh/Midtown called Sjostedt-Smith and offered one of its rooms. What began as a search for dresses turned into an entire event; an alternative prom where everyone was welcome.
Although high school proms allow people with disabilities, they often are less than accommodating, Sjostedt-Smith said. Bright lights with strobe effects can cause seizures and fog machines are a nightmare for people with breathing complications. Beyond that, the pressure to find a date and physical sickness can also prevent students from attending.
Sjostedt-Smith’s event aims to give people who missed out a second chance.
Six weeks after the dress shop incident, more than 400 people – including NCCU men’s basketball coach LeVelle Moton and beauty pageant winner Miss Capital City – attended the 2011 Dance Like No One’s Watching Gala.
The event included live music, a cupcake bar and a red carpet entrance complete with sign-waving paparazzi. Attendees ranged from eight years old to 70, and nearly a quarter were people without disadvantages.
“It is a special event for special people,” said Sjostedt-Smith, “and last year everything went so much better than expected.”A difficult second year
This year, though, the event is struggling for support.
“We need sponsors, we need volunteers,” said Sjostedt-Smith. “It takes an army of volunteers to put this together and a lot of people don’t know that we still need help.”
Sjostedt-Smith, who was adopted when she was 5 years old, suffers from Cushing’s disease, an ailment that causes her lungs and brain to swell with fluid, and leaves her in extreme pain. Already this year she has spent nearly two months in the hospital.
Despite this, Sjostedt-Smith continues to coordinate the gala, expertly orchestrating the preparations like an athlete playing despite a nagging injury.
She has help from her husband, Jeff, and her seizure-predicting Catahoula service dog, Snoozie-May.
The 30-year-old has converted her basement into a dress shop, inviting young men and women from around the Triangle in to pick out their outfits for the gala from a collection of donated dresses, jewelry and accessories.
Last year Leah Ward, of Apex, was among these visitors.
Ward, 31, never went to prom in high school. At 4 foot 9 and 86 pounds, it is difficult for her not to stand out.
“Through middle school and high school there were people that would throw rocks at me at lunch time,” Ward remembered. “Just trying to walk to the cafeteria was like walking up a mountain. There were days where I’d go outside and cry my eyes out.”
Ward met Sjostedt-Smith after her mother heard about the gala and decided to take her to the improvised dress shop.
The two hit it off instantly. The house with a converted basement has become a second home for Ward. She calls Sjostedt-Smith mom, even though the latter is a year younger.
“Leah has what I call an open soul,” said Sjostedt-Smith. “As a person, she’s the best friend anyone could have.”
Ward, who has Williams syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that delays mental and physical development, was named last year’s Gala Queen.
This year, the two are grateful to be able to attend a second gala together.
“Six kids have passed away since last year’s gala,” said Sjostedt-Smith. “Honestly, we didn’t know if Leah was going to be here.”
This time around, the Durham resident will have to give up her title to someone new.
“There will be another queen,” Ward said. “Somebody else needs to know love, compassion and kindness, and if I was the only queen then no one else would get to know what that feels like.”