When Tricia Pikul thinks back on prom from 27 years ago, she remembers a lot of the details — her black dress, the white flowers in her hair, the pink boutonniere she had for her date, Charlie Stoltz.
Oh, and the Newsday photographer and reporter who followed her and Stoltz around.
Pikul flips her hair back behind her shoulder, like a fashion model might, as she remembers the media covering her prom.
“She thought she was ‘all that,’” her mom, Janice Pikul, said with a laugh from her East Meadow home, before sounding out what Tricia spelled in the air with her fingers.
“A big shot.”
Pikul and Stoltz were students at the Nassau BOCES Carman Road School in Massapequa Park at the time. He was born with cerebral palsy and was graduating, while Pikul started attending the school after suffering a traumatic brain injury in a car crash at age 12.
After Stoltz, then 21, asked Pikul, then 19, to be his date to the prom, Newsday photographer John Keating and reporter David Behrens chronicled their big day from getting ready, gathering at her home for pictures and attending the prom at their school on June 12, 1992.
The story that ran was called, “A Night to Remember: Charlie and Tricia and a prom with meaning.”
The reporter describes Pikul writing “handsome” in big letters in the air. “Just to get the message across, Tricia made an exaggerated ga-ga face and then grinned as broadly as Charlie did,” the story said. “In the van, they sat side by side, holding hands.”
While the two are unable to speak, they complimented each other by using electronic speaking devices, which generate speech through an automated voice from words and sentences programmed into a keyboard and translations from their parents.
Pikul communicates with her mom by rapidly spelling out her thoughts and feelings in the air with her fingers on her right hand , while her left hand sits clenched in a fist. She points to her ear and her head to help explain her sentences, and nods yes or no to clarify.
Other times, she uses an electronic speaking device to communicate. She and Stoltz have similar devices that look like iPads. They have a full keyboard and a selection of thoughts and key phrases to help them program what they want to say, so it can then be read aloud with a push of a button.
“We … had … so… much ... fun,” Pikul recently spelled out on her device, recalling prom.
Stoltz spelled out the words “fun,” “dinner,” “music,” and “talking” on his device to describe that prom night. His mother said he was “the envy” of his classmates because he had a date.
Pikul and Stoltz are unable to walk unassisted, but they shared a slow dance that night with the help of teaching aides.
“It was almost like a wedding,” Stoltz’ father Charles said of all the attention from the media and the crowd of family and friends taking photos beforehand.
“It was a very beautiful experience,” Janice said, remembering the day. “Because it was like, she’s a traumatic brain injury child, and this is the most normal thing that she’s done.”
Tricia Pikul is now 45 and lives in the same East Meadow home with her mom. Stoltz, now 48, lives about 12 miles away in a group home in Dix Hills. They’ve lost touch over the years.
Janice Pikul said thinking about that experience reminded her of how long ago it was, adding that “a lot has changed.”
Tricia Pikul’s father, Richard, died in August 2017. Janice said her husband “lived for” her daughter, and now she cares for her on her own, along with the help from an aide a few times a week.
Pikul is in a Life Options program at United Cerebral Palsy in Roosevelt, where she assists high school-aged kids at its children’s learning center. She also sees a psychologist there to talk through her feelings, including the uncertainty of what her future will be.
During the summers, she goes to Camp ANCHOR in Lido Beach five days a week, where she surfs, swims and goes on day trips like baseball games.
She has a boyfriend, Kevin, of eight years, who she met at UCP and with whom she goes on dinner dates, and to see concerts and movies. She also loves spending time with her nieces and nephews, makes friends everywhere she goes, has a great memory and is good with numbers, her mom said.
“If God only gave her her voice, she could run for office,” Janice Pikul said.
Stoltz has been living in his Dix Hills group home that he shares with five others for 16 years. It’s affiliated with Life’s WORC, a Garden City-based organization that supports people with disabilities.
His parents and family members often come to visit. In Stoltz’s bedroom, photos of his family members, including his nieces and nephews, cover the walls and his dresser.
“The group home is an extension of us – we’re all family,” Stoltz's mother Stephanie said of all the group home members. “I come in, I bake things, we talk, we have happy hours.”
Stoltz says he mostly spends his time working on his art, such as drawing and painting. He enjoys listening to oldies and some country music, and has a corner of the living room in the home with a stereo and his CD collection.
He goes out with his housemates to the library, parks, to art classes — and even scored $55 on a trip to Jake’s 58 Hotel & Casino in Islandia. He decides what he wants every day to look like.
“He lives a very full life,” Stephanie Stoltz said. “He’s like the rest of us.”
Pikul’s mom echoed that sentiment about her daughter. “She’s happy in her lifestyle now.”