Pulses pounded, energy filled the air and hundreds of students moved to the rhythm as music from stars like Michael Jackson and Lil Nas X echoed through the Wilson County Expo Center on Friday.
The scene is familiar to the Wilson County Schools Transportation Department after 22 years hosting its annual Valentine’s Day Dance for Exceptional Education Students, but no less exciting.
“Back when we started, there weren’t many special education students or bus drivers here in the county,” retired bus driver and teacher’s aide Mary Ann Wheeler said. “And a lot of them were kind of kept apart and didn’t get to go on field trips or do activities that the other kids had. It’s amazing to see these kids get to do things they never have before, and to see the way society looks at them now as they realize they can learn so much from these wonderful children.”
Over the years, the event has grown along with the county and now sees nearly 600 people participate from every school in the district.
“Any chance these kids get to express themselves is a great opportunity,” Eric Whitman, a student support services teacher at Lakeview Elementary, said. “It’s one of their favorite events, and they practice their dance moves before they get here. It’s also like a family reunion where we get to see the kids we’ve taught over the years.”
Whitman and the other teachers in attendance could be spotted on the dance floor with their students throughout the morning. Parents also joined in the fun, including Roxanne Duplisea, a bus attendant who brought her daughter Gracie to the dance.
“Gracie loves everything about this — her friends, the food, the music,” Duplisea said. “We started coming about six years ago when we moved to Wilson County. She’s in sixth grade at Mt. Juliet Middle School now, so she gets to see some of her friends who are still in elementary school.”
Students also get a chance to make new friends from other schools when they come to the event.
“I think that part is very crucial in their development when it comes to social skills,” Duplisea said. “Gracie can come here and interact with her peers, but she can also meet people from the general education classes. She stays by herself a lot of the time, but when she meets someone new she’ll wave and use her communication device to crack a joke with them.”
Community members and organizations also work to provide that environment for the children by donating time and money to the event.
“Immanuel Baptist Church of Lebanon always volunteers to help out, and all the hot dogs are donated by Cori’s DogHouse,” Transportation Department West Park Supervisor Teresa Pomeroy said. “Really, everyone here is doing it on a volunteer basis.”
PetSmart also chipped in by donating stuffed animals as gifts for the children, while older students helped out by chaperoning.
“The students absolutely love it,” Transportation Department Director Jerry Partlow said. “If you look at them when they come out there too, they’re all decked out. Sport coats, hats, dresses — it gives you a good feeling when you can create that joy in another person’s heart, and that’s why this is my favorite event of the whole year.”