Wish Upon a Teen offers a classic prom night experience for hundreds of local teens with chronic illnesses.
Photography by Heather Chen
The first-floor conference room at the Hyatt Hotel in Royal Oak is abuzz with activity the evening of Saturday, May 18. Entering the lobby, the scent of hairspray and perfume is overwhelming as teenage girls and boys mill around in their most glamorous attire.
It is prom night, but this is no ordinary prom. The 151 teenagers in attendance all have one thing in common: they are battling life-limiting illness.
The event is hosted annually by Wish Upon a Teen, a nationwide nonprofit organization dedicated to providing age-appropriate programming for teenagers with life-limiting conditions. This age group is often overlooked in the medical community.
Alissa Toby Bandalene of Sylvan Lake is sitting at the back of the hotel conference room getting her makeup finished by the mother of Miss Teen Michigan, who is also in attendance. As she has makeup applied to her eyelids, Alissa said, “It’s nice to wear makeup because when you spend most of your time at school or the hospital you don’t really have an excuse to dress up.”
Alissa has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and lupus and is attending her fourth Wish Upon a Teen prom. She learned about the organization and the prom after having a severe flare-up in her condition that landed her in the hospital for nearly a year. During this time, Alissa was unable to attend school and had nowhere to go and nothing to do. Her mother ran across Wish Upon a Teen and Alissa became involved in the organization, attending events such as prom, spa days and cooking programs.
“I think the prom and the organization overall are incredibly important because there are organizations for children, there are organizations for adults and for cancer patients, but, if you don’t fall into any of these categories, you are a medical outcast and you are ignored,” Alissa said.
Prom is Alissa’s favorite event hosted by Wish Upon a Teen. This year, it was held in the lobby of the Emagine Royal Oak, which was complete with decorations, lights, music and food.
“Regular prom is really difficult when you are sick,” she said. After her flare-up, Alissa attended prom at her high school in a wheelchair. “It was miserable. I was in the corner and nobody came up to me. I couldn’t get on the dance floor because of the wheelchair,” she said.
In contrast to this first prom experience, Alissa said her first prom with Wish Upon a Teen was “incredible.” The difference, she explained, is that at a normal prom everyone expects you to be partying and having the time of your life, whereas this prom is a celebration of life.
“Everyone understands what you’re going through,” she said. “If you aren’t feeling well, someone will come up to you. No one is going to judge you.”
Alissa also talked about how Judaism and her faith have impacted her life and medical journey.
“The year before my flare-up, I went on Birthright,” Alissa said. “I was able to pray at the Western Wall, which was a big deal for me because I have had serious medical issues since I was 14 and didn’t think I would ever be able to go. I think about that a lot when I’m not doing well, and I hope I can go back one day.”
The prom was sponsored by the 95.5 FM radio show “Mojo in the Morning” as well as the Center for Special Needs at the Jewish Community Center. The special needs program became involved in Wish Upon a Teen because its founder, Michelle Soto, has a son with autism who is a part of the JCC program. The special needs program and various other JCC programs helped put together gift bags and arrange services for the Wish Upon a Teen prom event.
Both Special Needs and Wish Upon a Teen recognize the importance of having age-appropriate programming for teens and young adults with medical issues. JCC Special Needs reaches people ages 3-27 through programming as well as social groups for those age 16+ every other Thursday. This activity allows attendees to be treated as mature adults. Similarly, Wish Upon a Teen allows teens with medical issues to feel as though they are independent.
“There is a whole population of people who are just ignored,” Alissa said. “It’s such an awkward age to have a chronic illness because you’re trying to start a young adult life but most of us are still living with our parents and being cared for. Wish Upon a Teen and events like this help ease that feeling of being treated like a child.”
Alissa credits Wish Upon a Teen for helping fill a void in the medical community for young adults with chronic illness.
“A lot of us are too sick to live on our own and have social interactions so events like this are really important for our lives because social interactions and friends are really what keep you going,” Alissa said.