Looking dapper in a teal bow tie, Dougie Rufer sat in his wheelchair at Giorgio's in Baiting Hollow Thursday night bobbing his head to the beat of the dance music and watching the light show coming from the DJ booth.
"He was in awe as soon as he saw the lights and heard the music," his stepmother, Kathleen Rufer, said.
This was all new to Dougie.
As a student at Eastern Suffolk BOCES Westhampton Beach Learning Center, Rufer, 21, of Lake Ronkonkoma, had been invited to attend the prom the school hosts each year for students ages 15 to 21 enrolled in its prevocational program and their families. But his stepmom said in the past, the family has opted not to attend.
"I thought it would be difficult to maneuver him around and I wasn't sure if it would benefit him," she said.
But with this year being Dougie's last at the school as he prepares to graduate in June, Rufer said she thought it was important for him to have the prom experience.
"I was in tears getting him ready," she said.
Rufer admitted that she's shed many tears this past year as she and her husband, Bill, come to grips with the transition Dougie will be making after graduation.
Dougie, who is nonverbal and was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and developmental delays at an early age, has been attending the program at Westhampton Beach Learning Center for the last 10 years. After graduation, he'll be starting at a specialized day program in Hauppuage that caters to adults with developmental disabilities.
"He's been going to Westhampton for so long, you get comfortable with the fact they know him and they know his ticks," said Bill Rufer, who described Dougie's condition as being an 11-month-old in a 21-year-old's body. "It's tough, because he is so vulnerable."
Kathleen Rufer said she's been so impressed with the staff at Westhampton Beach that she feels like she's "losing a family."
"I think Dougie knows change is coming ... because he reads my emotions," she added.
Although leaving Westhampton Beach will be difficult, the Rufers said Thursday night was about celebrating how far Dougie has come and that he is growing up. One highlight of the night, Kathleen Rufer said, was when one of Dougie's schoolmates, Jazmine, who is also wheelchair-bound and has similar physical challenges, arrived at the prom.
"He was very excited when he saw Jazzy, she looks like a princess," Kathleen Rufer said of 19-year-old Jazmine, a Shoreham resident.
Principal Kevin Crofton said students with physical challenges like Dougie and Jazmine often do not attend the prom.
Jazmine's mother Chris (the family asked not to have their last name revealed) said she too had hesitations about how her daughter would handle the affair, including the loud music. They had taken her to one other prom the school held in its gymnasium before the event was moved to Giorgio's five years ago, but she said Jazmine didn't enjoy the experience.
"Unfortunately, it didn't work out for us, because of the acoustics in the gym," she said. "It was sensory overload for her."
But that wasn't the case Thursday night. From the moment, Jazmine entered the catering hall clad in a blue dress and sparkling shoes, she was beaming. She spent most of the night dancing along to the music either in her chair or in her father's arms.
Jazmine also seemed to enjoy the process of primping for her big night, including getting her nails done and posing for photos at her family's house, Chris said.
In the last few years, Chris said she's seen Jazmine make great strides with her cognitive abilities. For instance, using an iPad, she can now recognize images and use them to communicate basic wants and needs such as which snack she'd prefer to eat. Inspired by Jazmine's progress, Kathleen Rufer said she's been introducing the technology to Dougie.
"People don't understand when they see these children that there's something going on in their heads, they are very aware and they do understand what's going on, but they can't express it," Chris said.
And although Jazmine couldn't verbally convey how she felt about her prom experience, her father said it was clear she was enjoying herself.
"This is her day to bask in her glory," said her father, also named Bill. "It's a wonderful thing to watch your children blossom."