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WFAE's "Finding Joy" explores stories of joy and hope, offering you a bright spot in the news landscape.

At this Gaston County prom, the seniors graduated years ago

Crystal Gwinn pins a boutonniere on William Crocko at the Gaston County Senior Prom on Friday, May 10, 2024.
Nick de la Canal
/
WFAE
Crystal Gwinn pins a boutonniere on William Crocko at the Gaston County Adult Day Services "Senior Prom" on Friday, May 10, 2024.

It’s nearly the end of the school year, and that means it’s prom season — a time to go shopping for dresses and asking around for dates. In Gaston County, teenagers aren’t the only ones hitting the dance floor this spring. Some of the county’s older residents are as well.

Stepping inside Park Street United Methodist Church in Belmont for the Gaston County Senior Prom is like stepping into any high school dance.

A DJ spins old-school hits beside a long table with drinks and snacks. A woman holds a tray of boutonnieres and offers to pin them onto men's jackets.

The setting might be prom, but the students here have a few more gray hairs — and it’s been decades since they attended high school.

"When people hear senior prom, they think high school seniors, but these are senior citizens," said Karen Creech, a program supervisor for Gaston County's Adult Day Services program.

Creech came dressed to the event in a fancy black dress, a pearl necklace and a big smile.

"I'm as excited as they are," she said. "I love to see them happy, and I love to see them excited. So I get joy, and all the staff here get joy from it."

A DJ spins old-school hits at the Gaston County Senior Prom on Friday, May 10, 2024.
Nick de la Canal
/
WFAE
A DJ spins old-school hits at the Gaston County Senior Prom on Friday, May 10, 2024.

The program serves older adults with dementia, Alzheimer's and other medical challenges. Staff have been planning this prom for weeks.

Not only is it fun, but Creech says it gives participants a chance to get up, move and have social interactions — something they lacked for years during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"After COVID occurred, everybody in the world learned the effects of social isolation, so this is important to their quality of life," Creech said.


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'This is the bomb'

After a brief lunch, people filter onto the dance floor and partner up, or join a conga line.

Sitting on the sidelines is Crystal Davie-Sanders. She says she wasn’t sure if she’d make it to prom. She’s been struggling with her health, but her niece demanded that she attend.

"She said, ‘Auntie, you’re gonna go.’ So they’re all there at the house, trying to get me all ready, and they did it," she said.

She remembers her high school prom in 1972, and she says this one is different.

"So much nicer," Davie-Sanders said with a laugh. "This is the bomb."

There’s no teenage drama, and no one’s running off with anyone else.

"You know, we’ll get up and we’ll have a little bit of fun, and then we’ll sit down, like we should," Davie-Sanders said.

Couples dance at the Gaston County Senior Prom on Friday, May 10, 2024.
Nick de la Canal
/
WFAE
Couples dance at the Gaston County Senior Prom on Friday, May 10, 2024.

One of the most anticipated moments is the crowning of the senior prom queen and king. Creech, the program supervisor, says usually it’s whoever's been in the program the longest.

She recalls crowning the program’s first prom queen in 2018.

"She said, ‘That was the best day of my life.’ and I said, ‘Of your life?’ She said, ‘I never went to a senior prom ... I got married at the justice of peace.’ She said, ‘I’ve never had a day in my entire life, where I got my hair done, makeup done, dressed up, and became prom queen," Creech recalls.

'I think I truly like it'

Sitting at a table by the dance floor is a woman, Janice Carpenter, in a pink, flowy dress.

"They just threw this on," she said of her dress. "They said, ‘OK, that (dress is) OK, Janice. Go with it.’"

She said she felt a little out of her element. Usually she wears jeans and flannel, but as the music swelled, she stopped and closed her eyes.

"Listen to that music," she said, cooing. "Oh, that’s good."

She looked around at the couples and staff dancing a few feet away, and her face seemed to soften.

"I think I like it. I think I truly like it," she said.

A few minutes later, a man showed up and took her by the arm. They walked to the dance floor where they swayed, looking for all the world like two teenagers who might have been nervous to show up to prom, but are glad they did.

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Nick de la Canal is an on air host and reporter covering breaking news, arts and culture, and general assignment stories. His work frequently appears on air and online. Periodically, he tweets: @nickdelacanal