Cheers inside Carmel Baptist Church last weekend were so loud you could hear them outside on the sidewalk.
A constant stream of cars and limousines pulled up for more than an hour on the evening of April 8, dropping off everyone from teenagers to senior citizens dressed in formal finery. They stepped onto a red carpet and lined up 20 and 30 deep outside, patiently waiting for what likely would be the night of their life.
As one young man stood on the sidewalk, he told his dad, "I can be myself here."
The occasion was Joy Prom, now in its fifth year at Carmel Baptist. The guests were people with special needs.
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The event is so unique that people flew in this year from Las Vegas and Utah. Many guests had autism, Down syndrome, birth defects or developmental disabilities. Some were in wheelchairs; others leaned on caregivers to walk.
But for this night, they became celebrities.
They walked through the big wooden doors of Carmel Baptist's imposing entry. Hundreds of well-dressed volunteers - 1,800 worked the two-night event - lined the red carpet and packed the double staircase inside.
Flashbulbs snapped as the teenage "paparazzi" leaned in to take pictures and high-five the guests who slowly walked the red carpet, enjoying their moment.
"These people make them all feel very special," said parent Vi Kuczmarski.
More than 800 guests registered for Joy Prom this year; 200 remained on a waiting list. Organizers expanded the prom to two nights to accommodate more people.
Joy Prom began as a ministry of Carmel Baptist's youth group, which wanted to make sure that everyone went to a prom. About 200 special-needs people attended the first year.
"It's a God thing," said Kelly Burch, a Joy Prom volunteer. "Once you come, you want to come back."
There's no age limit, so guests can come every year.
After the prom, some sleep with their prom invitations or tiaras every night for months. Joann Dimola said her son lines up his Joy Prom pictures on his nightstand.
In a makeup room at the prom, Tammy Williams told of how she loves to dance. A volunteer sprayed glitter hairspray in her hair. "You look like you have diamonds in your hair," the volunteer told Williams .
Williams' host wheeled her to the upstairs dance floor, where a friend helped her out of her wheelchair.
Williams grinned and danced, holding onto her friend.
A professional events company decked out the church with zebra-striped fabric, white plumes and twinkling lights. There were four prom picture stations and an elegant dessert buffet.
For special-needs people who may be used to feeling different, Joy Prom provided the opposite experience.
"I'm having a great time," Mary Jane Tucker of Monroe said. "Look." She held out both arms to show off the silver bracelets she got from the costume jewelry table.
"I like coming here."
For caregivers, too
Joy Prom is for parents and caregivers, too. Some rarely get a night off.
So the church set up a hospitality suite with cookies, snacks, candlelight and plenty of comfortable seats.
A large group from the Lake Norman area brought eight special-needs relatives to the prom. "They love getting dressed up," said Don Watson, who enjoyed the evening in the caregivers' suite. "I think this is such a highlight in their life."
Derek Brown said his sister will talk about this event from "now until next year."
Meanwhile, families get to connect with other families who share the experience of raising and supporting a special needs person.
"You can always find something in common with everyone," said Lisa Brown. "The conversation just flows."
Caregivers rest easy because each special-needs guest is paired for the evening with a host or hostess who makes sure they have a companion and stay safe.
Dillon Carpenter, 14 and in eighth grade at Charlotte Christian School, has volunteered at Joy Prom for two years. This year, he ran into his "date" from last year and was thrilled when she remembered his first and last name.
Carpenter's youth pastor, Joseph McMurry, told him the look on guests' faces on the red carpet would be "as close to heaven as we will get on earth."
Carpenter said his goal was to make sure his date will never forget Joy Prom, because, he says, "I know I never will."