EAST COUNTY — Barry Gradert isn’t one to shy away from the dance floor, nor is he afraid to ask a girl to dance.
At a New Year’s Eve event recently in Ocala, the 56-year-old Gradert, a 26-year resident of Community Haven for Children and Adults with Disabilities, stopped the lead singer of a band in the middle of her set, walked on stage and asked — or rather, demanded — her to dance.
The singer liked Gradert’s dark brown pinstriped suit and matching extra long tie. She complied.
When Gradert commands the dance floor Friday, April 26, at the Night with the Stars Special Needs Prom at Woodland, The Community Church, he will save the last dance for his stepmother, Penny Gradert — the woman who’s cared for him since his parents died.
“I think he gets them — and me — with his smile,” Penny Gradert said. “He loves everybody, and they love him back.”
More than 500 special-needs individuals ages 16 and up, including Barry Gradert, will dance to ’50s music and current pop hits from 7 to 10 p.m. at the prom.
Special-needs individuals from Community Haven, Easter Seals, Westside Group Home, the Special Olympics and other organizations will be represented.
Before the event, A-Nu-U salon, in Sarasota, and Mary Kay representatives will travel to Community Haven — which will send 33 residents to the prom — to do girls’ hair and makeup for free.
A storage facility in Lakewood Ranch offers free suits and gowns.
Manatee Technical Institute will provide six cooks, plus a head chef, to make pasta and sauce, and Joey D’s restaurant will prepare salads and meatballs for 500 people.
Other donators include: John Dough Bakery, Panera Bread, Olive Garden, Gordon Food Service, Mr. Cheesecake, Pastries by Design, Frosted Over Cupcakery and Braden River High School’s Exceptional Student Education program.
Ringling College of Art and Design students crafted decorations for the event, as well.
The prom’s 15-member committee, led by Chairwoman Mary Anne McDevitt, struggled to get donations last year.
McDevitt said, last year, some companies broke commitments to donate.
“We expected the same kind of issues, but have had none,” McDevitt said. “I’m just floored (with) what has happened. People might hear about the prom and think it’s a nice idea, but when you see how happy the people are, your heart expands.”
Few individuals, if anyone, will be happier than Gradert, who wore a smile last year as a limousine carried him through pouring rain from Community Haven to Woodland.
He smiles in a picture his stepmother has from Gradert’s high school days at the Kirk School in Palatine, Ill. It shows him dancing with a former girlfriend — a woman with whom he hopes to reunite at next week’s prom. She is now a part of Special Olympics Manatee.
Before locking hands with his stepmother in the back office at Community Haven, Gradert focuses his thoughts back on prom. He talks about hugging lots of girls at the event.
Then, he reaches out to Polly Gradert and says, “I love you.”
Contact Josh Siegel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
IF YOU GO
Night with the Stars Special Needs Prom
When: 7 to 10 p.m. April 26
Where: Woodland, the Community Church, 9607 State Road 70 E., Bradenton
Details: Open to special needs individuals 16 years old and older. The event is free. A caretaker must accompany all attendees. The event will be staffed with three nurses, two EMTS and an ambulance.
Info: Mary Anne McDevitt, 742-3972