For many years, special education students with the Aiken County School District have relished the Special Olympic Games.

More recently, a program called Project Unify has brought special needs students together with “buddies” from their home schools to play basketball, flag-football and other sports.

On Thursday, students from five high schools traveled to Houndslake Country Club for their own prom, also a Project Unify program. The kids with disabilities and their buddies dressed up, danced, got their pictures taken and enjoyed a traditional prom dinner.

“It's a great experience,” said Cole Buff, a Wagener-Salley High School sophomore. “It's a good feeling to see them enjoy themselves so much.”

Buff is the president of the school's Make Others Believe program, also known as MOB. Their advisor is teacher Valerie Steen.

“We attended a Youth Activation Council summit,” Steen said of an organization that promotes connections and activities for special needs children and teenagers. “Our students were challenged to make a change, and they wanted to put on a prom.”

The other participating schools were Midland Valley, South Aiken, Silver Bluff and North Augusta high schools.

Some principals attended the event, as well as Superintendent Dr. Beth Everitt, Associate Superintendent King Laurence and Cassie Cage, the special programs director. Laurence was delighted to attend the prom with his daughter, Sydnie, a young woman with special needs.

“She actually aged out of South Aiken, where she had been involved with all the flag-football games, but got invited to the prom,” Laurence said. “Sydnie had been shy about going to the regular proms, so this was her first-ever. Before we left, I pinned her corsage, and then we did all the regular prom things.”

When she arrived for the event, Cagle had to hold back tears. “The kids with special needs got to interact with their friends,” she said. “It's awesome, and a lot of hard work and energy has gone into this.”

Senior writer Rob Novit is the Aiken Standard's education reporter and has been with the newspaper since 2001.