Special to South Florida Times
FORT LAUDERDALE —Shanice Aldridge was diagnosed with leukemia three years ago and her battle with the disease has prevented her from attending high school. So the 17-year-old did not attend a formal prom.
Until last Friday night, that is.
Shanice arrived in a limousine to a red carpet welcome at the posh Ritz-Carlton Fort Lauderdale for a special evening of celebration, dining and dancing.
Escorting her on her special night was Terrance Allen, also 17, of Lauderdale Lakes Academy, dressed in suit and tie.
Shanice was among more than 200 South Florida girls ages 12 to 18 who attended “A Prom to Remember,” a special treat for teenagers who are battling cancer and have not been able to go to a formal school prom.
“Many of these teens are forced to miss high school proms because of their illness and this is an opportunity to do something special,” said Brandon Opre, founder and president of The Unforgettable Prom Foundation, which hosted the girls for the “Viva Las Vegas” event.
“I remember that my prom was special,” said Opre, who began planning the first special prom in 2009 and now holds the event in Fort Lauderdale and Cleveland. “So this was an opportunity to do something special.”
Everything the teens need to make the outing special, including dresses, tuxedos, limo service, make-up and hair stylists are donated, Opre said. Staff members from South Florida hospitals who work with the teens attend as chaperones.
Shanice, a St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands native, lives at the Ronald McDonald House in Fort Lauderdale with her mother as she battles lymphoblastic leukemia, a fast-growing cancer of the white blood cells that accounts for about 80 percent of all childhood leukemias and 20 pecent of all adult leukemias.
She takes classes at St. Croix Central High School online. “I also have a tutor because, on most days, I stay home,” she said. “I’m ready to return to school but my mom, for now, wants me to stay online.”
Because of her illness, she said, she has “really matured. I look back on a lot of things I used to complain about and see now that it really didn’t matter.”
She plans to remain in South Florida and study to become a pediatrician. “There’s more opportunity here — endless options —and I really don’t want to leave,” she said.
Valentina Londono, 15, also had a chance to share in the prom experience — her first — with her best friend, Jennifer Gaber, 14, of J.P. Taravella High. The Coral Springs teens said the night was “a miracle.”
Valentina, who takes classes at Florida Virtual School, was diagnosed with stage 4 rhabdomyosarcoma in February and given “a 30 percent chance” of surviving.
“My hair fell out. I lost many of my friends. When I first started my treatment, the kids from my school came by the hospital. Over time, the numbers declined. But Jennifer hung in there,” she said.
Rhabdomyosarcoma, the most common soft tissue tumor in children, is a malignant cancerous tumor of the muscles that are attached to the bones.
Valentina plans to pursue a career in pediatric oncology. “I want to attend Harvard (University) or other Ivy League institution,” she said.
Whatever their future holds, for Shanice and Valentina “Viva Las Vegas” was a prom to remember.
“It makes you feel famous for one night, like you can laugh and have fun and nothing else matters,” said Shanice.
Valentina, who is now 10 months cancer-free, added, “Many of us who battle cancer are in the hospital every week. We miss our proms because we are sick. But this makes you forget, even if it’s one evening.”
Cynthia Roby may be reached at CynthiaRoby@bellsouth.net
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Photo: Shanice Aldridge