The Best Buddies program at Rowland Unified links special education students with regular education students.
LA PUENTE - Carlos Aguayo never expected his daughter to attend prom.
Cynthia Aguayo, 21, has Down syndrome, and communicates mostly through sign language. 
 
"My daughter, she didn't get to see her quince eara," he said, referring to Cynthia's 15th birthday party. "Chances were she wouldn't get to see her prom. That was really devastating for me." 
 
But thanks to the Best Buddies program at Nogales High School, Cynthia and about two dozen other special needs students were able to participate in a staple of the American high school experience through the Rowland Unified School District. 
 
"We want them to feel just as important as everybody else," said Michelle Babitz, who runs Best Buddies and teaches handicapped
 
Each year, the Best Buddies program holds three major dances, including a prom.
students at Nogales. "They walk around campus. They see things going on. I just want to make sure they feel like they are part of a larger society."
 
The prom was held June 5 at the high school, and included a live band, a disc jockey and food. The students were picked up in a limousine and their families attended.
They also got special gifts like tickets to Sea World and gift cards to Wal-Mart. 
 
"(Cynthia) had a great time," said Carlos Aguayo, who videotaped the dance. "Actually, she had a hell of a time." 
 
The nationwide Best Buddies program was first founded in 1989 by the family of Governor Arnold Schwarzengger's wife, Maria Shriver, to link people with mental retardation with the greater community.
 
At Nogales, the program partners special education students with regular education students, providing interaction between two the populations, said Gina Ward, spokeswoman for the Rowland Unified School District. 
 
The experience is valuable for everyone involved, Babitz said
.
"(Most teenagers), they've got friends they can go hang out at the mall with, go to the movies with," Babitz said. "Our kids are kind of just stuck at home ... We just want them to feel as close to normal as possible." 
 
The students in Nogales' special education program range between 14 and 22 years old, and have various kinds of developmental disabilities including autism and mental retardation. 
 
Babitz tries to ensure at least three dances for the students every year.
The spring prom - the biggest of the three - is always funded completely through donations. 
 
"Most kids take the prom for granted," Carlos Aguayo said. "But honestly it's a once in lifetime thing. This (prom) belonged to them." 
 
tania.chatila@sgvn.com
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