Participants in the Grace Fellowship Church Joy Prom were provided with several luxurious perks, including horse-drawn carriage rides. (Photos by Lee Talbert/Johnson City Press)
Red carpets, flashbulbs, and horse-drawn carriage rides are just a few things that can be associated with a royal affair or Hollywood party.
For a local church — and a special group of invitees — that was exactly the idea.
On Friday, Grace Fellowship Church, 2314 S. Greenwood Drive, hosted the fourth annual Joy Prom to celebrate the lives of those in East Tennessee’s special needs community.
Tom Oyler, who serves as lead pastor for GFC, said the event was motivated by a desire to celebrate members in and outside of his congregation with special needs.
“For us, it’s an expression of God’s love and compassion for people from wherever place they are in life,” he said.
To go along with that expression, however, Oyler said his church was blessed with members who shared that type of love and compassion, and loved to apply it to Joy Prom.
“We have a lot of great folks in our church who just have a heart to do this,” Oyler said. “It’s a labor of love; no one gets tired. There are a lot of people who have really given themselves to it and really enjoy doing it.”
The event was started four years ago by the church’s director of the Access Ministry, which works exclusively with people with special needs. The first Joy Prom saw 450 participants walk down the red carpet. This year, according to Jennifer Daniel, GFC’s director of children’s ministry, more than double that number were expected to attend.
“We have some from as far away as Knoxville, but most of them are from the Greeneville/Tri-Cities area,” Daniel said. “It has grown each year. And the community has grown around it tremendously.”
Along with boasting almost 1,000 participants (including volunteers, more than 1,200 people were in attendance), this year’s Joy Prom was paid for in full by businesses from within the community.
“This year, for the first time, Little Caesar’s and ... Angels in Disguise has paid for Joy Prom,” Daniel said. “Usually it just comes out of our budget.”
In addition to those businesses, Daniel added that she had “a long list” of companies and individuals who donated time, money or talent to the event.
While the event has drawn support from local businesses, one church official said it has also helped bolster relationships with individuals and families within the community. According to Access Ministry Director Becca Foxx, Joy Prom has helped facilitate communication between the church and the local special needs community over the years.
“One of the cool things about Joy Prom is that we get to build relationships with different families and different organizations,” Foxx said. “Through that, we’ve seen more people coming into the church and joining the Access program. The big highlight is to be able to make new friends and relationships and see them grow.”
Though the church has seen a boost to its membership as a result of the event, Oyler said the event is more about its participants than any benefit the church may receive.
“People with special needs don’t often get an opportunity to do something like this,” Oyler said. “It’s fun to watch them come in and out ... they get to wear tiaras, they get their nails done, they get their shoes polished. They just get treated like queens and kings, and that’s what we want them to feel.”
Participants were given treatment that some might equate to the treatment movie stars receive when they attend the Academy Awards. As they entered, each participant was stopped and was asked their name. When they prepared to enter the hallway — complete with a long, red carpet — their names would be announced over a microphone, and they would proceed down the carpet as crowds of church members clapped and cheered for their arrival.
Once inside, attendees could choose from a variety of activities including carnival-styled games, horse-drawn carriage rides, and — as with any prom — dancing. Though the event offered no shortage of activities, for some of the participants, the pageantry itself was enough to make the evening special.
“I love to walk on the red carpet,” said Rachel Pickle, who has attended Joy Prom all four years. “It feels good. I love it, and, just like in Hollywood, there are a lot of celebrities here, and I’m one of them.”
Whatever perks Pickle and her fellow participants prefer, Foxx said Joy Prom has come to mean more to them than just one night of dinner and dancing.
“Any time I see one of these participants at Wal-Mart or the store, they’ll run up to me and say, “Joy Prom!” Foxx said. “There are not a lot of things like this in the area. Everyone remembers it, and it’s talked about year-round.”