Tom's Take: Dance to Make a Difference
Kooper Richardson is a big, tough kid. He played for his dad, Kris Richardson, on those great recent Folsom High School football teams. He now digs in on UC Davis’ offensive line. His freshman stats list him as 6’6” and 298 pounds. He’s literally a “Big Man on Campus,” no matter what campus he happens to be on. But, for the past three years, Kooper has never been bigger than on a certain night in May. That’s when he sets everything aside—his free time, his comfort zone and, in 2016, his senior trip, so he can escort young ladies with special needs to a dance.
It’s not just any dance, either. It’s Evening of Dreams, which has been held at Capital Christian Center since 2009.
The red carpet event was the brainchild of Joe Alves and Michelle Raby. The idea? Pair young men and women who, because of physical or mental challenges, might not otherwise ever get to experience prom with “students of influence” from high schools throughout the region—frequently those active in sports or Student Government. If there was any question whether anyone would participate that first year, it was answered quickly when pretty much the entire varsity roster of Del Oro High School’s football team stepped up. The next year, Florin High School’s football team skipped their own prom for Evening of Dreams. The year after that, “students of influence” from over 40 area high schools participated. Becoming an escort has since become an event; Raby opens registration online at midnight on March 1. She says most of the now 250-plus spots are filled up by midday by students like Kooper.
“I became involved as a sophomore when they reached out to our football team,” he says. He joined high-profile teammates like Jake Browning and Cole Thompson, even though, Kooper admits, “my first year I was nervous, because I didn’t know what to expect.”
But that changed quickly when he realized “people with special needs aren’t any different.” A YouTube video from last year of Kooper asking Maddie Morley, a Folsom High School student with autism, to Evening of Dreams went viral. Even though he’s in college now, he plans on being back. “This will be my fourth year, [and] it has changed my life in so many ways.” Most particularly, “it’s taught me to respect everyone, and treat everyone with kindness and equality.”
Spiffed out in tuxedos and prom gowns, the kids and their escorts roll up in front of Capital Christian’s gym in classic cars and walk the red carpet like it’s some kind of world movie premiere. (Disclosure: I’ve been lucky enough, along with my radio partner Pat Still, to emcee this portion of the event twice. It is by far one of the most uplifting things I’ve ever gotten to do.) Parents, friends and family crowd a couple sets of bleachers on either side of the carpet. Volunteers with cameras position themselves strategically as paparazzi. Cheers go up as every name is announced. Some of the kids boogie and dance down the carpet. Others shyly and quickly hustle inside. Still, others walk with the aid of their escort, or are pushed along in their wheelchairs. All of them smile—big, huge smiles—the radiant, face-stretching kind of smiles that only appear when they can no longer be contained; in other words, the best kinds of smiles. The escorts all have them, too.
Inside, the gym is a prom director’s fever dream: hundreds of balloons, thousands of sparkling lights, miles of crepe paper, and music thumping loudly enough to crack your fillings. And there are no wallflowers: Everybody dances. And dances. And dances more. Raby recalls the time one young lady danced all night, on her knees, because her date was in a wheelchair.
Kooper called his decision to skip his senior trip last year to escort Maddie “a no-brainer,” adding, “we had so much fun together. To see her so happy was something I’ll never forget.”
This year’s event is May 20 and if by chance you come out and see those smiles parading down the red carpet, you’ll learn exactly what Kooper means; it’s something you will never forget, either. For more information, visit eveningofdreams.com.
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