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The Lunch Bunch fills a classroom at East High. Once a week, regular education students spend their lunch time with special education students. (William Lauer)

Introductions first. This is tradition for the Lunch Bunch, friends who meet once a week in the wing of school where not a lot of students go, the special-ed wing.

It’s a wing where students at Lincoln East sometimes hear strange sounds, like noises or groans. They see disabled kids walk or get wheeled down a long hallway into this wing.

It’s been a mysterious section of the building.

But this semester, more students than usual are walking down the hallway carrying lunch trays. Each week, more arrive here Thursdays for Lunch Bunch.

That’s why Mrs. Laurie Witters-Churchill likes to begin with introductions.

“You can start, Myles.”

She looks at a lanky blond boy eating a cheese sandwich.

“I’m Myles. I’m an 11th-grader and I like history. And someday I will be made president of the studly United States of the studly America.”

The kids clap and whoop for Myles, who smiles.

A girl says she likes to play soccer.

Another girl plays golf.

Another is into acting and singing and dancing.

A boy says he is a runner.

Another is on the tennis team.

A cheerleader likes to shop and dance.

Another girl plays clarinet in the wind ensemble.

“Trevor, you’re up,” says senior Allison Potter, leader of the Lunch Bunch.

“I’m Trevor Howe, and I’m a ketchup freakazoid because I do like ketchup!”

He raises his arms. Ketchup is smeared on his T-shirt and pants.

“Yeah, Trevor,” Allison says, raising her arms, too, and slapping his hands.

“And I danced at prom — the whole night!”

The kids have been passing prom photos around the tables. Allison got a bunch of the kids together and they went as a group.

The kids have been laughing, recalling the highlights. Dinner at The Cornhusker, and an evacuation there because of a kitchen fire. Prom at a ballroom in the Nebraska Union at UNL. The post-prom party at the Lincoln East gym.

I want to sit by Allison, Andrew, a boy who had a brain tumor, said at dinner.

No, Trevor said. I want to sit by Allison.

Allison sat between them.

Here’s the photo.

When Trevor’s hamburger came, the first thing he said was: Where’s the ketchup?

Here’s the photo of handsome Zach Marolf in a black suit and rose boutonniere.

“I’m Zach and I danced at the prom.”

“And I danced with him,” Allison says. “Whew.”

Mrs. Witters-Churchill, a special-ed teacher here for 11 years, has never seen anything like this year’s bunch, and the three special seniors who made it happen.

About 30 kids are crowded knees-to-knees around tables in her room. They had to steal chairs from another room.

Lunch Bunch used to be once a month. Then a girl said: Why don’t we meet every week? Now it’s every Thursday.

Kids of every kind come. Jocks. Cheerleaders. Quiet kids. Brainy kids. The boy who had a brain tumor, and radiation. A boy who had a brain injury from a football collision and scars in his hair and an outgoing personality. Special-ed kids.

A girl sits in a wheelchair, dark curls against a cushioned headrest. A para feeds her spaghetti and milk.

Allison speaks for her — she’s Kelli Blacketer and she’s on the Oracle staff and she loved going to the prom, too.

nnn

C-A-N … Y-O-U … P-U-S-H … M-E …

Kelli pointed to letters on a board in front of her.

They were dancing — Melinda Biggs pushing Kelli in the wheelchair — in the ballroom as “Jessie’s Girl” started to play.

Melinda could see Kelli was excited.

T-O … T-H-E … M-U-S-I-C?

Before prom, Kelli had been one of the few Lunch Bunch kids Melinda hadn’t connected with yet.

“There’s always a para with her, so it’s hard to not rely on the para to interact. I always felt kind of awkward with Kelli — should I be talking to Kelli or the para?

“But at prom, the whole group was just so inclusive. She’d look at me to make sure I understood, and I’d nod, ‘Yeah.’”

She pushed her friend to the music.

nnn

Hannah Lindner went to the prom with the group, though she’s not a member.

She’s blind. She and Melinda have a poetry class together. Melinda invited her at the last minute.

Hannah wore a periwinkle dress and black high heels.

Here’s a photo of her and Allison and Melinda and Kelli. They are making funny faces and poses.

“I hadn’t planned to go,” Hannah says. “So it was really cool. I got my dress that very morning at Younkers. I made an emergency trip to Younkers with my mom and sister.

“It was the first time I actually got to dance with a guy in a long time, I think since the eighth grade when we had to dance in P.E. class.”

Her feet had blisters by the end of the night.

nnn

Zach Marolf came home at 4:30 the next morning carrying a pizza and boxes of Fiddle-Faddle from the post-prom party.

He was so wound up he couldn’t sleep.

Over reheated pizza, he told his parents about the dinner and the party and the sumo-wrestler suits the kids could put on and wrestle each other, how he danced with cheerleaders and a girl on the dance team and Allison, his date.

(Allison officially had four dates that night: Zach and Trevor and Myles and Andrew.)

“There’s just not a lot of kids like that who will incorporate special-ed kids, especially on prom night,” Cecily Marolf says.

She was so happy she wanted to cry.

Trevor’s mom felt that way, too. Parents of special-ed kids worry their kids won’t be accepted socially, Laurie Howe says.

Trevor came home beaming. He talked about the food he ate and the portable radio he won and all the girls he danced with.

Mom, he said, I was a dancing machine.

nnn

Not a single Lunch Bunch kid is here just for show, Mrs. Witters-Churchill says. None has asked her to sign off on volunteer hours.

They’re here for the friendships.

Three seniors have led the bunch this year — Allison Potter, Melinda Biggs and Jake Meador.

Allison is a natural leader. She organized the prom night outing.

Melinda has a knack for bringing out the quiet ones.

Jake, an outgoing kid on the newspaper, is a great role model for the boys. They like to joke with him.

These kids brought their friends into Lunch Bunch, and those friends brought other friends.

And now, Mrs. Witters-Churchill says, this wing of the building isn’t so mysterious anymore.

Reach Colleen Kenney at 473-2655 or ckenney@journalstar.com.

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