The Ottumwa Courier

March 17, 2014

One special prom date

Steve Woodhouse
Journal-Express

Knoxville — Prom night has long been a rite of passage for American high school students. Knoxville High School Prom 2014 will include one couple that no one ever expected to have the ability to take part. 

KHS Junior Wesley Harrison, 17, worked up the courage to ask his favorite girl, 19-year-old Senior Jessica South to prom. Wesley has Autism and Jessica is afflicted with Rett Syndrome, a neurological disorder that affects every part of one's body. The condition largely affects little girls. 

Wesley and Jessica share classes at KHS together. The two quickly formed a bond when Jessica began attending school this year. Though Jessica's condition has confined her to a wheelchair, with an inability to talk, she still has ways to communicate. According to her mother, Sharon South, whenever Wesley's name is mentioned, she smiles and waves her arms. 

As for Wesley, he finds Jessica to be a very special friend. 

"She's just a little angel," Wesley told the Journal-Express. "I sometimes call her 'Cutie Pie.'" 

Jessica's mother, Sharon, said she enrolled Jessica in school this year for the social aspects of attending. Though Jessica's ability to communicate is limited, Jessica has a Dynovox machine, which follows her eyes, to help her communicate. She has had the machine for less than a year and she is still getting used to it. 

"She loves being around people," Sharon said of Jessica. 

Wesley's grandparents, Jackie and Dennis Harrison, never thought they would see him go to prom. Wesley came to live with them at age two. At that time, he would not communicate with anyone.

Attempts were made to teach him sign language, but to no avail. All along, they wanted to get him to talk. One day, Jackie had him in a high chair. She knew he liked cheese and told him that if he wanted some, he would have to say, "cheese." Eventually, he did. His communications, including speech, improved from there.

"And he hasn't stopped talking since," Dennis jokes. Wesley has attended school, has vast knowledge of computers and participates in the KHS Band.

"These are all his achievements," Dennis said. "We've just been there to guide him." Both are very complimentary of the Knoxville School District and Wesley's teachers. Though Wesley has found success and growth at school, neither of his grandparents expected him to go to prom.

"I was shocked," Jackie said. "Shocked and delighted at the same time. I never thought it was going to happen, but I didn't cry."

"At least not yet," Dennis added. 

Wesley describes himself as shy, but he knew he wanted to take Jessica to prom. He believes he will become more shy as the dance gets closer. 

"She was just all smiles when he asked her," Sharon said of Jessica. Sharon received a text message from one of the teacher's aides at school to let her know the date had been made.

"I cried," Sharon said. When Jessica got home that day, she was able to tell her father, who lives in Chariton, about the date over the phone, using her Dynovox. 

Jessica's ability to make her own choices and to enjoy music help lead Sharon to believe that she will enjoy prom. Sharon has already taken her shopping for a prom dress. Jessica showed her interest, or lack thereof, in a dress by smiling or just turning her head away. When she put on a pink, sparkly dress with matching ruffles on, Jessica was all smiles.

"I guess this is the dress," Sharon said. "I think she's going to be very excited about it." 

Wesley's tuxedo has already been ordered. It is black with a pink tie and cummerbund, with diamonds. The couple will also have silk corsages for each other, so that they can remember this prom night forever. 

"I'm sure she'll remember," Sharon said. 

The couple plan to take part in the pre-prom walk-in that night (Saturday, April 12). Both will have many family members in attendance as well. Chaperoning of the couple at the dance will not include Sharon. 

Sharon, Jackie and Dennis are all glad that Jessica and Wesley have found each other. They believe Prom Night will be extra special for this couple.

"He has a very big heart," Dennis said of his grandson.