A coming-of-age event for everyone: Unity Prom gives all types of learners a chance to celebrate

Unity Prom is an effort by Kaimuki High School educators to bring two student populations together in one celebration.
Published: Apr. 6, 2023 at 5:04 PM HST|Updated: Apr. 6, 2023 at 5:49 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Prom celebrates a young person’s coming of age and is considered the pinnacle of high school. But students with special needs often don’t get a chance to experience it ― until now.

Dozens of students from Kaimuki, Kalani, Roosevelt and McKinley high schools celebrated prom at the Waialae Country Club on Thursday, complete with dresses and dress shirts, corsages and boutonnieres, prom pictures, food and, of course, dancing.

“It’s for our students with special needs with more of the moderate to profound disabilities,” said Keevan Matsumoto, special education teacher at Kaimuki High School.

“And they’re paired with a general education student for this wonderful event that we’re having here. So the special ed student is paired with a regular ed student date.”

That’s why it’s called a Unity Prom ― an effort by Kaimuki High School educators to bring two student populations together in one celebration.

What started as a small party in the Kaimuki High cafeteria a few years ago has expanded to a full-scale event with a DJ and special guests from the University of Hawaii, including UH football, women’s volleyball and women’s basketball players.

“A lot of times in the old days, they were tucked away in the far corners of the campus and no one saw them. And so now we want to bring them visibility into the community and our school community as well,” Matsumoto said.

Traditional prom can be expensive so sponsors like nonprofit Ho’ea-The Foundation hosted the event at no cost for students.

“To have them have that same memories that we grew up with. It’s indescribable,” said Eric Fujimoto, founder of Ho’ea.

Kaimuki High School student activities coordinator Holly Honbo also credits the hard work of the student council, teachers and transportation staff to make the event a success.

“It’s a really big community effort. And that’s what we’re all about in Hawaii, it’s community,” Honbo said.

It’s a reminder of how powerful inclusion can be.

“I have a special needs child. He’s 6 years old. He has Down syndrome. So I think just for them to just have a regular night/day that’s special for them,” said Robyn Ah Mow, head coach for UH women’s volleyball.

“Really happy-go-lucky kids that just want to have fun like everybody else.”

And like any teenager, these youth deserve a prom experience to remember.