The magic began the moment students from the Kansas State School for the Blind stepped out of their stretch Hummer limousine and entered Changing Seasons Presents: A Secret Garden, to begin a night that they would never forget.
It was their first-ever prom, and Russ Lawrence, the owner of the Englewood Arts District venue, wanted to make it special.
“First, Russ gave everyone flower petals and we threw them in the air when the kids got out of the limousine,” said former school teacher and social worker Patti Raouf, who altered every dress for the prom participants. “It was magic, pure magic. If you could make a night special, Russ did it. He’s amazing.”
And that was just the beginning. Lawrence called in a lot of favors and found people and companies to donate everything.
“We decided that night that it is going to be an annual event for the kids,” Lawrence said. “And everyone who was part of this event said they would love to be invited back. We’re so excited.”
But Lawrence and his crew’s excitement pales in comparison to the youngsters, who had never attended a prom.
“Do you know what one girl told her father after she tried on her dress?” asked Raouf, his voice touched with emotion. “She said, ‘Daddy, now you know what a Princess looks like?’ That was so special.”
A simple comment like that more than made up for the six weeks Raouf put into altering the dresses.
“It’s been a labor of love,” Raouf said. “Russ has done most of the work. He has people donating food, a stretch Hummer limo so all the girls and their dates can arrive in style and he had a wedding on Saturday and the bride and groom gave him permission to use their flowers and decorations for the girls’ prom.”
Lawrence’s assistant, Gina Kutawa, added, “Alex was the prom queen Russ escorted into the event, and she told me it was the first time she had ever had her hair done up. It was beautiful, it was up in a bun. And she said that was so special – she looked so beautiful. All the girls looked beautiful.”
Another employee at Changing Seasons, Vickie Davis, is also an employee at the Kansas State School for the Blind, and she had asked Lawrence if they could take their prom photos at his Englewood wedding/party site.
“Take pictures? I told them, ‘Let’s have the prom here,’” Lawrence said. “I wish everyone who reads this article could have been here to see the joy, the pure joy, we all experienced. One of the kids told me, ‘One a scale of 1 to 10, this is an 11.’ That brought tears to my eyes.”
Lawrence wasn’t the only one searching for a box of tissue that night.
“This is an amazing night for all of us,” said Madeleine Burkindine, the superintendent of the school. “I’ve seen every emotion you can imagine on a night like this, from the students and their parents. For Mr. Lawrence to do this for the school, for our students and their parents, well – I don’t even have the words to describe it.”
A young student named Mariah had no problem coming up with a description.
“This is the best day of my life,” Mariah said. “The very best.”
Her date nodded in agreement.
“From Mr. Lawrence to his staff to the people who volunteered to help tonight and donate their services, they have all gone above and beyond,” said school dormitory superintendent Jeff Young. “This is an amazing event, and the kids and their parents didn’t have to pay a dime. They got picked up a stretch limo, they have this beautiful venue for their prom and carriage rides.”
Although he was not with Mariah when she made her comment, he backed it by adding, “This is one of the best days in the life of all our students and it all happened because of Mr. Lawrence.”
The personable philanthropist was quick to step away from the spotlight.
“It was a group effort,” Lawrence said. “You know, those kids might not be able to see – but they opened our eyes on the night of the prom. We should be thanking them.”
Those who donated goods or their services were Dale’s Limo, Sassy’s Bridal, Patti Rouf, Kathy Boucher jewelry, Janet Whitehead Photography, Covenant Cakes, Hy-Vee at 23rd Street in Independence, Randy the DJ, Pioneer Trails Carriage Rides, Flashing Lights Mobile Photo Booth, KC Mixologist and the Love Bugs.