12/20/13 — A project from the heart

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A project from the heart

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on December 20, 2013 1:46 PM

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Dressed as Santa, Taylor McGill surprises a group of life skills students from Rosewood middle and high schools during their third annual Winter Dance at Herman Park Center. McGill organized the dance as part of his senior project in 2010 and has returned every year after graduation. The dance is now sponsored by the Rosewood High School DECA club.

The "quietest Santa ever" made his entrance at Herman Park Center on Thursday morning, where more than 100 middle and high school Life Skills students gathered for the third annual Winter Dance, sponsored by Rosewood High School DECA Club and Goldsboro Parks and Recreation.

The auditorium was already festive enough, with a spinning disco ball, popular dance music and holiday decorations for the popular event anticipated by students with moderate to severe disabilities to attend their own version of the prom.

Returning to oversee the idea he introduced three years ago as part of his graduation project at Rosewood High School, Taylor McGill, now 19, again donned the big red suit, hat and gloves.

"He's a different kind of Santa," his mom, Asia McGill, said before he made his entrance. "He's not a ho-ho-ho Santa. He's nonchalant. He will come in, really quiet and he'll start walking around, moving around (the room) until they notice him."

Sure enough, his arrival evoked high-fives and students wanting a photo taken with the jolly old elf, or at the very least a smile as he passed among them.

The laid-back former football/baseball/wrestling student, who now works at Southco Distributing Co., said the concept morphed more from a friendship than a school assignment.

"My freshman year I met a dude named Mike, manager for some of the sports teams," he said. "Me and him got real close. I just wanted to do more with (special education students)."

Taylor, a member of the school's DECA Club, had also volunteered with Missy Vernon, an exceptional children teacher at the school.

"I wanted to give back," he said. "I just wanted to do my own thing. I talked to Ms. Teresa Smith (exceptional children transition coordinator for the district) and we came up with this."

The holiday-themed party was a hit from the start.

"Our teachers and kids just absolutely love it," Mrs. Smith said. "When I send out the email in November, it's just like the highlight of the year. It's a wonderful event.

"We probably started out with 60 or 70 kids. We have grown to about 100."

Even since Taylor graduated, he has worked to continue the tradition. Herman Park Center opens its doors for the festivities and his alma mater's DECA Club handles arrangements.

"The kids made the CD of the music, figured out what kind of food and really they're just being hosts and hostesses," DECA adviser Dede Stone said of the club members.

Educators agreed it is a worthwhile event.

"This is our most favorite of all our field trips," said Judy Moody, exceptional children teacher at Southern Wayne High School. "They get to dance and boys get to dance with girls.

"They hear about prom in the high school, but most of them don't get to participate in it."

Ms. Vernon said it is something her students look forward to every year.

"It's a huge event for my kids," he said. "Taylor's very adamant that they keep doing it every year. He does a good thing. The best part of our Christmas thing is going to the winter formal. Cooking and the formal at Christmas."

Wendy Thomas, an EC teacher at Greenwood Middle School, likened it to a reunion.

"I get to see all my old babies," she said, pointing around the room at former students now at several area high schools.

"We all get together to see each other again," she said. "It's like all of our family's together."

Mrs. Smith, who has worked with Wayne County Public Schools for more than three decades, echoed the sentiments.

"I just enjoy them, to see them come in here," she said. "They're just as happy as if they were at prom, dressed to the nines and in a limo.

"I invite people from the community to this. It's the most wonderful event you'll attend during the holidays. It will bring joy to you."

Both Taylor and Mrs. Smith anticipate other options on the horizon -- he is weighing entering the military and possibly one day becoming a special education teacher, while she will retire from the district Jan. 31. But they each expressed a strong desire that the winter dance continue.

"I will still volunteer for this," Mrs. Smith said.

"I just want to keep on doing it," Taylor said. "Man, to see them happy, it only helps to make you happy. To see them smile while they dance, it's pretty cool."