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Kate Saldana, center, poses for a photo with friends Elise Miles and Korie Pries during prom night at Rocky Mountain Village Easterseals Camp. Prom is the highlight of a weeklong camp for teenagers with disabilities near Empire. (Jennifer Brown, The Colorado Sun)

EMPIRE — Kate Saldana is wearing diamond-studded shoes and hot pink eyeliner that matches the roses on her prom dress and the platform of her motor-powered wheelchair.

On the dance floor, she spins her chair while her friends bounce around her, waving their arms under the green and pink pulsing lights of an activity room-turned-ballroom for one memorable evening. At the center, a tree made of papier-mache and strung with leaves rises to the ceiling. And in the corner, a contortionist dangles from aerial silks.

This is the night Saldana, 21, looks forward to all year. The prom she attended in high school doesn’t compare. College doesn’t compare, really. This night — the finale to a weeklong summer camp in the Colorado mountains for teenagers with disabilities — is the thing.

“When I come to camp, I feel like a completely different person, but it’s a great person, I think,” said Saldana, who has spinal muscular atrophy

Kate Saldana and camp counselor Elise Miles, both 21, call a friend on Saldana’s phone to find out when she will arrive at prom. (Jennifer Brown, The Colorado Sun)

Just off Interstate 70 at the Empire exit, surrounded by pine forest, mountains and a creek, Saldana has found the best friends of her life. 

“Most people I go to school with don’t have disabilities so it’s kind of like an outcast situation,” said Saldana, who is studying psychology at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. “Here, people treat you with love and happiness.” 

For 13 years, she has returned to Rocky Mountain Village Easterseals Camp, where her closest friends are college-age camp counselors who also come back to the Clear Creek County retreat every year. The camp runs nine weeks throughout the summer, and each week is focused on a different age group or type of disability. 

Rocky Mountain Village in Clear Creek County holds nine, weeklong sessions of summer camp for people with disabilities, from children through adults. The camp costs $1,500 per camper, but is subsidized through donations and community fundraisers. (Jennifer Brown, The Colorado Sun)

Most campers have their own counselor, the person who takes them to the pool, the fishing hole, on mountain hikes and to ride the disability-adapted zipline. If needed, counselors push their camper’s wheelchair, help them eat and change their clothes. In the cabins, campers usually take the bottom bunk while their counselor takes the top. 

Saldana’s counselor this summer helped her pull off a “promposal” to another counselor with sandy-brown hair and sights set on medical school. Josh Law, 24 with a degree in religion from the University of Mississippi, was about to head out of camp for a run last week when Saldana called, “Come over here, unless you are doing something important?”

He jogged over to find Saldana and her counselor with a small trash can, a nod to a joke between Saldana and Law, who call each other “trash” because of a story Law told her about one of his teachers. Inside was a written invitation to prom.

As Law arrived at a pre-prom dinner, where the tables were decorated with logs and evergreen boughs, he hesitated at the door. “I’m waiting for Kate to tell me where to sit,” he said, before the two dined on a Renaissance-inspired meal of Black Forest ham and baron of beef, corn on the cob and fire-roasted veggies with feta cheese. An opera singer performed as camp counselors in tuxes or lace and satin gowns served their campers dinner. Many of the girls had flowers in their hair, and Chacos or Tevas hidden by their swishing skirts. 

Campers and their dates, most often camp counselors, dance to Meghan Trainor’s “Me Too” during prom night at Rocky Mountain Village. “This is an experience that a lot of them don’t get,” said camp counselor Allison Loecker, 20. “Prom is a very mainstream thing. If you’re not a mainstream person, prom is something you might not experience.” (Jennifer Brown, The Colorado Sun)

The tuxes were donated by a Denver shop, and the camp’s stock of donated prom dresses has grown to nearly 200 — fashion through the decades. Saldana brought her own this year, a white satin frock with large pink roses, because she wanted to make sure she had a dress that would fit her body. 

A photographer took pictures of prom dates under a white canopy as they entered the dance — an enchanted forest leading to an outdoor patio with caramel apples, funnel cakes and a fortune teller. 

Over the years, the prom theme has been everything from Willy Wonka to the Seven Wonders of the World. Maddie Olson, who attended camp for 14 years and, at age 26, has aged-out of the teenage week for 14- to 21-year-olds, still calls the night she was named prom queen one of the best of her life. 

A camper and her counselor pose for a photo as they enter the dance last week at Easterseals camp. A service dog waits his turn to go to prom. (Jennifer Brown, The Colorado Sun)

Olson, in a lavender gown and pearls, came from Colorado Springs for the evening to attend the prom with her parents, who guided her wheelchair through the dance. She tried to put into words why she keeps coming back.

“It’s easier to be yourself here,” she said.

Camp director Tony Garcia, who first came to Rocky Mountain Village as a counselor nine years ago, said that of the 48 campers at teenage week, only a handful had or would ever attend prom at their high schools. “It is the best day of some of these people’s lives and they will remember it forever,” he said. 

And it’s not just the girls. Garcia recently learned about a young man who had aged out of teenage week — the only week at camp with a prom — so he stopped coming to camp altogether. His mother tried to coax him to return by saying he could wear a tuxedo for dinner one night in the mess hall. “That’s how important it is, even to the guys,” Garcia said.

For Saldana, the night was also a reunion. A former camp counselor, a 22-year-old who is now a nurse in Denver, made the drive up to the mountains to join Saldana at prom. The group bit into caramel apples and took photos of each other, decked out in glittery makeup and rhinestone shoes. 

The sticker on Saldana’s water bottle also captured the moment: “Don’t let anyone ever dull your sparkle.”

Campers and camp counselors walk from a Renaissance-themed dinner of meat and bread to a dance at Rocky Mountain Village Easterseals Camp in Empire. Men wear donated tuxedos and women can choose from nearly 200 donated dresses for the prom. (Jennifer Brown, The Colorado Sun)

Jennifer Brown

Jen is a co-founder and reporter at The Sun, where she writes about mental health, child welfare and social justice issues. Her first journalism job was at The Hungry Horse News in her home state of...