Kelsie (Sheets) Parton, left, is joined by her sister, Kiegan Watts, and her late dad, Tom Sheets, at the first “Night of Stars” prom for special needs individuals in May 2017. The prom is operated through Launching Arrows, a non-profit organization that funds the event. Parton, along with her family, friends and volunteers are gearing up to host the fourth “Night of Stars” prom on May 14 from 6 – 9 p.m. at the Vermeer Global Pavilion in Pella. Tom Sheets passed away on Jan. 24, 2021.
By J.O. Parker
Life’s experiences have a way of taking people on unexpected journeys. Just ask Kelsie (Sheets) Parton, a 2007 Montezuma High School graduate now in her eighth year teaching special education at Pella Middle School.
In 2014, Parton’s sister, Kiegan Watts, had volunteered to do hair at one of Tim Tebow’s “Night to Shine” events in Des Moines.
“She invited me to tag along to paint fingernails because she thought it was something I’d enjoy,” recalled Parton. “I fell in love with the experience and came to a realization that I was in a community that could make this happen for individuals with special needs, bypassing the application and selection process (of attending a “Night to Shine” event).”
Working in the field of special education, Parton went on to say, “I felt in my heart that this was something I could recreate in our area and attempt to show these individuals how much they not only meant to my life but others around them as well.”
Parton and a host of volunteers held the first “Night of Stars” prom for area residents with special needs in May 2017. Attendees come from Pella, Oskaloosa, Knoxville, Grinnell, Newton and as far away as Moulton.
The event also took place in 2018, “because word got out and we had such great momentum,” Parton said.
Following the 2018 event, Parton decided to make the prom a bi-annual event.
“In 2020, we had to cancel the in-person event due to COVID, but we provided a virtual opportunity for attendees and delivered baskets containing a T-shirt, a crown, snacks, and small decorations so they could have a prom of their own,” Parton said.
The fourth “Night of Stars” prom is slated for May 14 from 6 – 9 p.m. at the Vermeer Global Pavilion in Pella. As with past in-person proms, attendees arrive at the pavilion where they are introduced while walking the red carpet with their dates, friends and family. They are greeted by members of the Knights of Columbus who are in official attire with swords drawn in an arch.
Once inside the venue, prom attendees are crowned king or queen followed by a formal photograph. There is a DJ and dance, games, food and each attendee receives a “Night of Stars” T-shirt with the donors advertised on the back. Each registered attendee also receives a gift basket with items donated from members of the community and put together by volunteers.
“Registered attendees get their names put in a big jar and we draw names every half hour,” Parton said. “Once their name is drawn, they will take their name tag over to the gift table and attach it to the basket of their choice.”
Earlier in the day, volunteers provide makeup, hair and nails for the young ladies attending the prom. A dress drive is also held so each young lady can have a free dress to wear to the prom. Many of the male attendees wear suits and tuxes.
Launching Arrows is a non-profit organization based in Oskaloosa under Parton’s leadership that covers the financial needs and organization for the “Night of Stars” event and other inclusive opportunities. The 2017 “Night of Stars” was the first event sponsored by Launching Arrows.
“It (Launching Arrows) was originally created to make sure no students were held back from being in activities due to financial hardship,” Parton said. “Over time it became more targeted to providing opportunities to individuals with special needs.”
In addition to “Night of Stars,” Launching Arrows hosts all active events such as community peer PE and inclusive baseball games.
“We also have a branch called TeamKeegs that raised money and purchased five adaptive carts so that individuals can participate in running events such as a 5k or 10k, despite any physical limitations they may have,” said Parton. “We also have an adaptive cart that can be pushed or attached to the back of a bike so that individuals can participate in triathlons.”
Planning, volunteers and memories
Parton said planning for the prom generally takes about nine months.
“By fall, we have our date and venue, DJ, and a general timeline for the event,” noted Parton. “In January, we select a date for the dress drive, begin to collect dress donations and send donation letters to local business. Invitations get mailed out in early March and it all happens pretty fast after that! Attendees start registering, T-shirts get ordered, catering gets set up, etc.”
When asked about fundraising, Parton said the event is fortunate to have a lot of support from Pella and the surrounding communities.
“We send our business letters out in January and donations come in the mail,” she said. “We also have used GoFundMe to raise money for the TeamKeegs adaptive bikes.”
Parton said the prom would not be possible without the volunteers.
“Our surrounding communities jumps in with both feet and lend a hand,” Parton said. “We usually have around 20 volunteers that show up to help decorate and then around 40 to help chaperone and assist at the event.”
“Everyone always has such a great time that we have never really have trouble getting people involved,” added Parton. “Many people say that their hearts are full after the event and start recruiting family and friends to join.”
When asked about her most memorable moments hosting the prom, Parton said there are many moments that she wish she could relive, but there are a few that stick out to her.
“I remember during the promenade at our first event, there was a gentleman dressed in a suit and the sidewalk was lined with people taking pictures and cheering,” recalled Parton. “The Knights of Columbus were dressed in their official attire with their swords raised in an arch. When he approached the red carpet he got the biggest smile on his face and ran down the carpet. There was so much joy and excitement in that moment, and that alone made it all worth it.”
Parton said another memory that stands out to her was from the second “Night of Stars” prom.
“Our gift baskets were lined up on the table and two volunteers were working hard to the attach names as they were drawn,” said Parton. “At one point I looked over and the volunteers were laughing, yet also wearing looks of uncertainty. When I went over to check in they informed me that they had a woman who was repeatedly coming up to the table and asking them to hide multiple baskets under the table for her. We still laugh about it to this day. It also represents how important each piece of the bigger puzzle is to some of these attendees.”
Making a difference
After graduation from MHS, Parton attended Central College where she graduated in 2011 with a teaching degree. She holds a Masters in Special Education from Morningside, graduating in 2013. Parton taught two years at Montezuma before accepting the special education position at Pella Middle School.
“I originally received an endorsement in special education to be more marketable in my career,” Parton said. “When it became time for my first job, the only job I was offered was in special education.”
Looking back, Parton said she now knows that was God’s plan for her all along because she fell in love with it.
“I knew right away that I would never want to do anything else,” she said. “There is so much to enjoy about my job but I would say what I enjoy most is the students. They demonstrate unconditional love every day and bring joy and celebration to even the smallest milestones. Working with these individuals has taught me to embrace our differences and truly understand that everyone was created with a specific purpose in life. That is a lesson that will forever impact my life.”