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Lending support at prom: Hastings student helps classmates enjoy high school tradition

Carolyn Bentson, left, is pictured with Emily Chamberlain before going to prom. Bentson volunteered to help Chamberlain, who has a difficult time walking due to a birth defect. (Submitted photo)

Every day at lunch, Carolyn Bentson sits with a special group of students. They are making their way through high school with special educational needs. Some have physical challenges; others face cognitive difficulty.

Bentson, a sophomore at Hastings High School, started eating her lunch with these students after a friend gave her the idea. The high school runs a program, the Special Education Student Aide program, which brings typical high school students together with students with disabilities to help them through the school day. The program also provides the opportunity for students interested in taking more of a full-time approach to helping those with disabilities to get a better general education, as well as increases peer interactions for the students. There are 11 such student aide positions in the district, explained Heather Lindstrom, secondary special education coordinator for Hastings High School. Students interested in being an aide have to apply and be hired, undergoing a background and reference check.

"The work that the special education student aides do range from assisting students at lunch, helping on the playground, assisting students in getting to classes, tutoring younger students in basic academics, light clerical tasks, assisting with physical education activities and helping in the classroom," Lindstrom said. "Prom duties are not part of this assignment."

Since she's started spending time with them, Bentson has really gotten to know these students. One thing that she appreciates is how positive they always are.

"They're always in such a good mood," she said.

In the hallways, she's often greeted with enthusiastic hello's, too.

Leading up to prom, several of the special education students decided they wanted to go to the dance. Two, in particular, told Bentson they didn't want to walk in the grand march unless she went with them, Bentson said.

One of them was Emily Chamberlain, a junior at HHS. She was born with Spina Bifida, a neural tube defect that leaves the nerve endings in her upper spine exposed. Her condition that makes it difficult to walk, among other things, so on Saturday, Bentson was right next to her, helping her through the grand march.

"She had the most awesome time," said Shannon Chamberlain, Emily's mother.

The idea to go to prom was "sort of" Emily Chamberlain's idea, she said.

"It seemed like it would be a lot of fun for me," she said, "since I've never done it before."

Leading up to prom, Chamberlain got a little help from another HHS student, Alex Eggert. She brought in a few dresses for Chamberlain to try on and gave her the one she picked. The day of prom, Eggert helped her do her nails and hair, too. Eggert escorted another special education student in the grand march, while Bentson escorted Chamberlain and a wheelchair-bound student.

Another student, Jesse Greene, also walked with one of the special education students, even though he already had a date for the dance.

"It made her world," Bentson said.

After the grand march, all the special education students got together for dinner in Red Wing and then went to the dance later. Chamberlain didn't stay for the dance, as she found the music too loud, but she can at least say she's been to prom, now.

Bentson wanted to go with the girls so they could have the same experience as all the other students at HHS.

"They're kids, just like everyone else," she said.

Her decision to join Chamberlain and the others for prom caused a mix of reactions from her fellow students.

"I definitely think it was good of her to do it," said Megan Miller, one of Bentson's friends.

Others, Bentson said, weren't so supportive.

"But I knew it was the right thing to do," she said.

A few adults have been impressed with her efforts to help out.

"Carolyn is just the nicest young person," said Shannon Chamberlain.

Mary McGraw knows Bentson through one of Bentson's jobs outside of school and was impressed when she found out Bentson was giving up her own time to help at prom.

"She's just an all-around nice girl," McGraw said. "... How many 16-year-olds would give up their Saturday night (for that)?

"I'm just so proud of her," she said.

Bentson's work in the student aide program at HHS has helped her realize her interest in working with people with disabilities once she finishes high school, Bentson said.