A very special night in Tiverton

Unified Tigers celebrate prom night and get a little help from friends

By Ruth Rasmussen
Posted 3/27/24

One Friday evening earlier this month, Tiverton High School senior Lyla Staskiewicz looked around the school cafeteria, which had been transformed that day into a festive venue for the 2024 Rhode …

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A very special night in Tiverton

Unified Tigers celebrate prom night and get a little help from friends


One Friday evening earlier this month, Tiverton High School senior Lyla Staskiewicz looked around the school cafeteria, which had been transformed that day into a festive venue for the 2024 Rhode Island Special Olympics Unified Prom – the first such event at the school in more than a decade. All was bright, colorful, festive and joyful.

Nearby, her schoolmate, Kyra McCarty, was a vision in blue as she mingled with friends and practiced her dance moves.

Meanwhile, in a nearby classroom that was now a makeshift hair and makeup salon for her friends, Kassidi Tolan’s long tresses had been transformed into a mass of curls by her teacher, Allison LeBel. Asked if she had been formally trained in the science of hair and makeup application, LeBel laughed. 

“I wish! It’s just through trial and error…and watching YouTube videos.”

With her hair stylist responsibilities complete, LeBel asked student Brooke Bergeron, if she was ready to make her way to the cafeteria. Brooke, who seemed to glow from head to toe, smiled happily, took her teacher’s arm, and the two headed for the door. 

“She is in her own world right now,” said Brooke’s mom, Jennifer Drape, enjoying the festivities from the sidelines. “This is her first gown, and she was thrilled to have her hair done.”


Big night at the prom

The prom was a long time coming for Lyla and her friends.

Earlier in the year, while mulling over ideas for her senior project, she hatched a plan to create a special evening for some students she had grown particularly fond of during her high school years.

With the support of teachers, staff and the community, her idea gradually took shape. At last, the evening had arrived, and the prom was underway.

While a cross-section of Tiverton students and guests were in attendance, the spotlight was entirely on the unified students in the room — and that was exactly Lyla’s goal.  

Her motivation for the prom stemmed from Lyla’s involvement with Unified Tigers, a Tiverton program that encourages acceptance and inclusion by building relationships between students with and without specialneeds. She was initially drawn to the program because she grew up with a brother who has autism.

“I’ve seen firsthand that special needs kids do not get the same opportunities as everyone else. The need for inclusion is at an all-time high, which is why I decided to make a change.” 

Teacher Dave Landoch served as Lyla’s mentor. He and fellow educator Michelle Pesare started Unified Tigers in 2013 and have served as the program’s advisors ever since. The group plans events for special needs students throughout the year and also seeks ways to make a difference on a day-to-day basis. 

“Regular ed kids will greet the special needs kids as they get off the bus,” said Landoch. “They’ll hand them cards with messages that might say things like ‘You’re special, you’re a ray of sunshine.’ Or they’ll sit with them at lunchtime to make sure they don’t eat alone.” 

“Lyla is a great kid, going out of her way to do something like this,” he added. “It speaks to her character. I’m happy to be a part of it with her.” 


It takes a village

A month or so before the prom, word of the prom caught the ear of Zach Leone, whose family-run business, Alexandra’s Boutique in Fall River, has catered to brides and prom-goers for 38 years. 

Leone, a 2007 Tiverton graduate, connected with LeBel, offering not only to donate dresses, but to offer some of the girls a “VIP Prom Experience” at his shop.

LeBel gratefully accepted the offer.

Leone said a few different stylists worked with the girls the day they visited the shop.

“They walked around the store with the students and asked the typical questions. ‘What’s your favorite color? What kind of dress do you want to wear?’ My staff pulled a bunch of dresses, the girls tried them on, and they all got to pick their favorite.”

Apart from the expert advice, the girls were treated to snacks and drinks, gift bags, and the iconic Alexandra’s garment bags (pink of course) to protect their gorgeous new dresses on the trip back home. 

“These kids are sometimes sort of overlooked,” said Leone. “It was definitely special to see the joy on their faces when they were here.”

LeBel said others in the community also came forward, offering to help where they could. Thanks to Tiverton resident Tammy Martin, for example, the gowns fit the girls perfectly on prom night.  

“She did all the alterations and redesigned some dresses to fit more comfortably -— all for free.”

On the big night, faculty and staff members helped with makeup and hair styling, and parents and local businesses donated food. 


A new tradition?

Reflecting on the success of the event afterwards, Lyla admitted to a case of pre-prom jitters.

“I was a little scared because it was my first time creating an event to this extent, but once the music turned on, and all the kids were smiling and dancing, I knew I had done something right ... One student who I’ve never seen smile and usually does not interact with people was holding my hand, smiling and dancing.”

She hopes, too, that the Unified Prom will become an annual event.

“I would love for this to be a new tradition for Tiverton High School. I want to pass it down to the younger members of the Unified Tigers and of course, I would come back to help out.” 


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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.