West Islip special needs students live their prom dream

Christopher Bartley, who has Down syndrome, prepares for a big night out with date Brooke DiPalma and some West Islip High School friends. Videojournalist: Jessica Rotkiewicz (June 20, 2013)

Christopher Bartley was so thrilled about West Islip High School's upcoming prom he wrote about the event in his special education class, predicting it would be "the highest point in my life thus far."

There was one problem: He didn't have a date.

The 18-year-old with Down syndrome had expected to go to Thursday night's prom with his friend, Jason Keller, 20, a special needs student who missed his own West Islip prom two years ago.


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But in stepped two girls -- juniors Brooke DiPalma and Emily O'Rourke, both 16 -- who offered to accompany the young men.

"I can't wait to see the smile on his face," DiPalma, Bartley's date, said earlier this week. "I know we will all have so much fun together."

As the prom neared, Dana Bartley seemed as excited as her son.

"This is a dream that every parent has and every kid has, and Chris is going to get to live the dream," she said.

Thursday night, a black limousine pulled up in front of the Bartley home in West Islip.

Bartley wore a black tuxedo with a green vest. DiPalma pinned a white rose to his lapel.

"I feel outstanding," he said, beaming.

The two couples were joined by a third -- seniors Tyler Doherty and Abby Riley, both 18 -- as they posed for pictures on the front lawn.

More than 500 West Islip students and their dates held tickets to the prom at Carlyle on the Green, on the grounds of Bethpage State Park. The theme was "Surf and Sand."

Bartley planned to ask the DJ to play a Journey remix. He's wanted to go to the prom for a long time, but there were only 15 students in his special education class -- and no other seniors, said Nicole Cifelli, one of his teachers and the prom's co-adviser.

Initially, Brooke DiPalma's older sister, Jaimie, and her friend, Amanda Klein, intended to go to the prom with Bartley and Keller. The 20-year-olds are best friends with Bartley's older sister, Kelly.

But Brooke DiPalma suggested she should go instead, since she's still a student at the school. Her mother, Debra, is a teacher's assistant in Bartley's class.

After her father, Joseph, committed suicide in April 2010, DiPalma founded P.S. I Love You Day, an annual event at which the school and community wear purple in a show of togetherness and acceptance to counter bullying, rally around those suffering from depression, and, ultimately, end suicide. She hopes to make it a national event.

Thursday night, DiPalma, dressed in a seafoam-green dress, smiled as she posed with Bartley for prom photos.

"It's just so sweet," she said afterward. "He is so excited."

Keller's senior year was actually two years ago, but he remains a special education pupil in the district. He works two jobs -- at a McDonald's and an Allstate Insurance office -- and attends a full-day program at Eastern Suffolk BOCES in Bellport, his mother, Jen Keller, said.

O'Rourke hardly knows Keller, but when DiPalma asked her a few weeks ago to be his prom date, she didn't hesitate.

"I thought it was awesome. I said 'Of course' right away," O'Rourke recalled.

Like his friend, Keller was looking forward to a night filled with dancing. "I love it," he said.

Shortly before 6 Thursday night, the group piled into the limo bound for the Carlyle. Bartley's prediction was about to come true.

"It will be a fun time," he said. "I'm going to have a blast."

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