Prom is a rite of passage for teenagers, but for Stephen Carroll, a 2012 graduate of Johnston Senior High School, it was a tradition he thought he would miss out on. Born with Cerebral Palsy, Stephen is in a wheelchair, and was hesitant to attend his final high school dance last spring.
Taylor Boardman-Kelly, a 16-year-old from North Providence, made Stephen’s prom dreams come true. And for that act of kindness, Taylor and Stephen were both honored with $1,000 scholarships on Sunday from the Metta Students Foundation at a ceremony at the Raffa Yoga Studio in Cranston.
“I was lying on a yoga mat in this very room and Christine Raffa was telling me about this young girl who stepped outside herself – stepped outside her comfort zone – and took this young man to prom, and how it really was a special act of kindness,” said Norm Kelly. “Christine called Taylor a ‘bright light.’”
The Metta Students Foundation was created in response to that bright light. Kelly is the CEO of Software Quality Associates in Providence, and says his company was looking to start some kind of charitable foundation. When he heard Stephen and Taylor’s story, SQA decided they had found their cause.
“It’s something we can be very proud of,” Kelly said. “It rewards kids who are doing good. You don’t have to be the best athlete or the best student – it doesn’t really discriminate.”
Rather than react to disease or negative circumstances, the Metta Students Foundation is about promoting the good work of young people. Metta means love, compassion and kindness, and by supporting those who embody those characteristics, Kelly is hopeful that Metta will continue paying it forward. They hope to award a $1,000 scholarship every month.
“This was our first story,” Kelly said. “I don’t know if we’ll ever beat it.”
While a senior at JHS, Stephen was on the fence about going to prom. Despite encouragement from his family and teachers, he didn’t have a date. Special education teacher Kaolin Boardman asked around, but no students came forward, until she shared the story at the dinner table one night. Her 16-year-old daughter, Taylor, approached her before going to bed and volunteered to attend the dance with Stephen, whom she had never met.
When asked why she decided to ask Stephen, Taylor shrugs. It just seemed like the right thing to do.
“Everyone should come to their prom, especially because it was his last one,” she said.
The gesture moved Boardman, who had known the Carroll family for years through her work in the Johnston school system.
“I was really proud of her,” Boardman said. “She recognized how important it was for her to go to the prom and she couldn’t imagine having to miss out.”
Proud, but not surprised.
“She’s always been the type of kid that makes sure, if someone’s being picked on, to defend them. She’s not cliquey at all,” Boardman added.
With the prom just days away, Boardman allowed Taylor to skip a day of school to visit Johnston High School, where she was able to meet Stephen for the first time.
“It went from meeting for the first time to what color flowers should he buy,” Boardman said.
And for Stephen, it was an introduction he won’t soon forget.
“She was really cute,” he said.
Stephen’s mother, Wendy, said that Stephen came home that day and was ecstatic about his choice of date. They got to work quickly, picking out a suit and ordering flowers. Taylor had her dress and shoes already, having just attended her junior prom in North Providence.
“It went by so fast. I only had three or four days to get everything ready,” Stephen said.
“He looked good either way,” Taylor added, her arm around the back of Stephen’s wheelchair.
While the Carrolls and Boardmans focused on getting prom-ready, the community was reacting to Stephen’s story. Unbeknownst to him, his classmates created a Stephen Nation account on Twitter, urging students to nominate him for prom king.
“I had no idea,” he said.
Taylor watched the campaign spread, picking up followers in the course of a single school day.
“All of them wanted Stephen to win. By fourth or fifth period, there were like 300-something followers,” she said.
Those followers turned in to votes, and Stephen went from skipping Senior Prom to being named its king.
“I was just like, ‘Am I dreaming right now?’” he recalled.
Boardman attended the dance, and she too was touched by the actions of the students. After the prom court was introduced, the student body began chanting Stephen’s name until he was announced the winner. He got to share his dance with fellow graduate Elyse Varone, whom he has known since the first grade.
Wendy Carroll was out to dinner at a nearby restaurant. When the text messages starting pouring in, sharing Stephen’s big news, she was in tears.
“The whole thing has been totally overwhelming,” Boardman said. “When Taylor did this, it wasn’t for anything in return. She just wanted to do something nice for Stephen. We never thought it would ever snowball into this.”
Boardman and the Carrolls were all on hand Sunday to accept the $1,000 scholarships, as well as a handcrafted Metta award, created by Ahlers Designs, that uses recycled materials to create custom awards and gifts.
Christine Raffa, owner of Raffa Yoga, was honored to host the event and to be the connection between the teenagers and Kelly’s new foundation.
“I just think the vibration of consciousness is changing. People like Norm who see that and propel that into the community – there’s nothing better,” she said. “What Norm is doing is huge. What we need to highlight are the positive things – the bright lights like Taylor, like Stephen and like Norm.”
“And like Christine,” Kelly added.
To learn more about the Metta Students Foundation or to nominate a young person, visit mettastudents.org or visit them at Facebook.com/MettaStudents.