South Charlotte

‘Evening of Believing’ offers rock star treatment

The Sandbox hosted its fourth annual “An Evening of Believing” prom on Sept. 19. The event honored 238 young people who have terminal illnesses or life-altering conditions.

“We understand that when a child has a diagnosis, the entire family carries that diagnosis. It means that there can be a lot of stress in the household. They are so focused on the diagnosis that they need an opportunity to forget all of that, be pampered and feel like the rock stars that they are,” said Mara Campolungo, co-founder of The Sandbox, a Charlotte-based organization with offices on Rea Road.

The organization provides emotional and financial support to families whose children have cancer or other illnesses.

Prom honorees ranged in age from 7 to 22 and were introduced to The Sandbox by social workers at six area hospitals, including Levine Children’s Hospital and Hemby Children’s Hospital in Charlotte. Honorees also were referred by sponsors who provide resources and financial support to The Sandbox.

The evening began with hair, nail and makeup treatment at Paul Mitchel Salon. The honorees also received complimentary gowns and tuxedos. They then were transported by a police-escorted limousine to Aria at Founders Hall.

They received red-carpet treatment, complete with 250 “paparazzi” made up of volunteers, and were welcomed by a Marine color guard.

The nautically themed event was emceed by Maureen O’Boyle of WBTV News Channel 3. The band, Chairmen of the Board, and the DJ, AudioToGo, provided musical entertainment.

“We are able to do what we do through the generosity of the community, our sponsors and our donors. There is no cost to honorees and their families,” Campolungo said.

The prom included a remembrance ceremony to honor former honorees. Since 2013’s prom, five of last year’s honorees, including the prom queen, have lost their lives battling their illnesses.

“An Evening of Believing Prom is a joyful, memorable occasion that they may not have had if they did not have the opportunity to attend their own prom,” Campolungo said.

Each guest went home with their professional, framed photo and male guests received a purple and teal bow tie from Tie My Knot, depicting the official colors of The Sandbox.

“Families have beautiful photos, videos and memories from the evening,” said Campolungo.

Sixteen-year-old Ronald Tasker of Sherrills Ford was one of this year’s prom honorees. Tasker is a junior at Bandys High School and was diagnosed with quadriplegic spastic cerebral palsy at age 2.

Ronald also brought his best friend, Hayley Thompson, as a guest.

“He is an amazing young man,” Campolungo said. “He is well beyond his years. He has an instinctive and unconditional love for people. He’s really delightful.”

Tasker has a service dog, Achilles, that is being trained by Jenni Lough Watson, president of Swiftdogz, a dog training center in Concord.

The 6-month-old male golden retriever is being trained to open doors, carry books, pick up dropped items, and retrieve Tasker’s wheelchair. Tasker plans to attend college and Achilles will help him achieve that goal.

According to Tasker’s father, John Fortin, going through traditional service dog organizations could have meant five years of waiting lists and $20,000 for a generally trained dog that would have needed additional training.

Ronald Tasker is now an advocate for other children to get the service dogs they need, and is raising funds to provide one dog per year to a college-bound student. He has formed an organization called Achilles Service Dogs.

“I want to be able to change lives. I want to be able to help people who are in similar situations to what I am and help them toward independence,” he said.

Ronald Tasker brought Achilles with him to the prom.

“This was an awesome opportunity to not only share with people, but to meet new people in similar situations to what I am,” he said.

To learn more about The Sandbox and the services it provides, or to make a donation, visit www.gotsandbox.org.

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