It was a festive scene that would call out to anyone after a long, cold winter: party music, laughter, sand, bright colors, games and even Hawaiian leis, all in the company of friends. It could have easily been a beach party, but this springtime revelry took place on Rider’s Lawrenceville campus on Friday, April 1, when the University’s chapter of the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) welcomed some 30 guests to the Mercer Room for their annual spring dance.
Their guests – all Mercer County-area residents with varied cognitive or physical disabilities – arrived ready for fun, with some dancing enthusiastically while others made sand-art bottles with materials provided by their hosts. Still, others enjoyed pizza and snacks with the Rider students, all members of CEC, the largest international professional organization supporting the education of children with special needs.
Rider’s CEC chapter boasts about 40 active members, and while they host a bingo party in the fall, as well as other community service events, the spring dance is the CEC’s signature event.
“This is why we exist – what our organization prides itself on,” said Christina Ferinde, a junior Elementary Education and Psychology major and president of Rider’s CEC chapter. Ferinde explained that the evening’s guests, mostly ranging in age from 15 to 20, but with some as old as 30, often lack quality opportunities to socialize once they graduate high school. Most partygoers here attend or have graduated from Mercer Junior-Senior High School, run under the auspices of Mercer County Special Services.
“It’s a great place to make some friends,” said Ferinde. “We just get everyone up on their feet, dancing or talking.”
The art of conversation was well-honed over pizza at one table, where 25-year-old Natasha explained how her days are full holding down two jobs – one at ARC Mercer, and another at Platypus Custom Furniture – but she’s still got her focus set elsewhere.
“My dream job is to be a newspaper reporter,” said Natasha, who attended the party with her sister, Megan, 20.
A few parents remained on the sidelines while their children partook of the fun. One, Elaine Lyons, said her son, 18-year-old Sean, had been to one other such event at Rider, and was excited to return.
“The Rider students do a phenomenal job with their programs for special education students,” she said. “Sean always enjoys himself.”
Another mother, Linda Green, said her 17-year-old daughter, Tamonica, spread the word about the dance to her classmates at Mercer High. “She told all her friends,” said Green, as Tamonica quickly got into the mix at the party.
About an hour into the dance, eight or 10 students formed a conga line, and who could help themselves once the Buster Poindexter party favorite, Hot, hot hot!, blasts through the speakers? Rider junior Randi Rosiak watched her classmates and her guests wind their way through the room, hands on the hips of the person before them, and smiled with satisfaction.
“We planned this for the entire spring semester, and sent invitations to as many people in the community as possible,” said Rosiak, and Elementary Education and Psychology major with a minor in Special Education. “This is our last event of the year, so we really wanted it to be a success.”
Senior Laura Beidelman, a senior who will graduate in May with a degree in Elementary Education and Psychology, with a minor in Special Education, echoed Rosiak’s sentiments.
“This is a big event for us; once we come back from spring break, we’re planning and thinking, ‘OK, what day is it going to be? What’s our theme? Do we have the invites ready yet?’ It’s a lot of preparation,” she said. “So, I’m happy to see how great it turned out.”
Beidelman, who is looking to land a job as a special education teacher, said her involvement with CEC and events like the spring dance help give her additional insight and experience that will aid her, professionally.
“Events like this help familiarize me with the special education population,” she said. “It’s definitely a help.”
Dr. Michele Wilson Kamens, professor and director of Special Education Programs, said the spring dance is a day when the students’ hard work is richly rewarded.
“Our students run the whole event. We are very proud of them and their connection to children with disabilities in the community,” said Kamens, who, along with Dr. Diane Casale-Giannola, serves as co-adviser to the CEC. “It’s a wonderful experience for our guests and our Rider students.”