Thirteen-year-old Denise Stewart liked the shimmering white gown and the sparkly rhinestone crown she got to wear at the Autumn Ball hosted by the Shelby County Relative Caregiver Program on October 3 at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC).
The program supports children and teens who are being raised by relatives because their parents are unable to do it. Denise, a 7th grade student at Freedom Preparatory Academy, was one of 36 girls and boys at the annual formal dance.
The clothes, music, dancing and food were great, she said. But she liked something else even more.
“I liked when we got to tell our caregivers how much we care about them,” she said.
That’s music to the ears of the administrators of the Relative Caregiver Program, which has been helping children and families throughout the Memphis area for more than a decade. A public/private collaboration funded through the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services, the program was developed on the idea that children whose parents can’t care for them for whatever reason are best served if cared for by willing grandparents, aunts, uncles or other relatives.
Operated out of the Boling Center for Developmental Disabilities, part of the College of Medicine at UTHSC, the program offers resources, some emergency funding, counseling for families and mentoring for children and teens enrolled. Held for the first time last year, the dance — officially called the Young Men and Women of Distinction Autumn Ball — is designed to offer the young people an evening of celebration and success in spite of the obstacles they have faced.
“This night was the night our young ladies and young men were celebrated and honored for who they are and who they will become,” said Teresa English, program administrator. “These are our dreamers, and we love them very much.”
Through donations and budgeting, the program purchased white gowns for the girls and black suits for the boys to wear for the evening. Crowns and gloves were purchased for the girls, and top hats arranged for the boys. A Memphis dry cleaner donated cleaning services for the gowns and suits. A local suit retailer came to campus and fitted the suits for the boys. UTHSC donated the venue on campus, as well as some of the decorations. The boys and girls met regularly for weeks to practice their signature dance.
They danced to the song “Conquerer” from the show “Empire,” and each got to present a rose to show appreciation to their caregivers.
Billy Henry and his wife, Irma, are Denise’s caregivers. He couldn’t say enough about the evening and the program. “It has helped her a whole lot. She did a 360 from what she was when she got here,” he said. “They showed her how a young lady would walk, how a young lady would act, and what a young lady is expected to do, and as each month goes along, she grows more and more.”
Denise said she, too, notices a change. “Being in the program, I feel better about myself.”