Natalie Andersen, a freshman at Osseo-Fairchild High School, holds a dress she picked out for the Born to Shine prom planned this April in Eau Claire for special needs students from across the Chippewa Valley.

Photos of high school students all dressed up for prom pop up like tulips on social media feeds every April and May.

It’s a rite of springtime in the digital age.

When Jennifer Sanford of Osseo saw the latest crop of grinning photos shared last spring, she couldn’t help but think how nice it would be to have a comparable event just for students with special needs.

As a parent of Natalie Andersen, a freshman with autism and epilepsy at Osseo-Fairchild High School, Sanford had seen how special education students often come out of their shells when surrounded by other kids with special needs.

So she proposed the concept of a prom for special needs students on her Facebook page last April and asked what people thought. The idea took root immediately, with dozens of people raving about the concept and volunteering to help it blossom into reality.

As a result, the inaugural Born to Shine prom in honor of Chippewa Valley students with special needs will take place from 4 to 9 p.m. Saturday, April 11, at Metropolis Resort in Eau Claire.

Sanford and co-organizer Kelly Peterson of Eleva hope it is the kickoff of what becomes an annual tradition. They believe it’s the first event of its kind in west-central Wisconsin.

“My daughter is extremely excited,” Sanford said. “She already went dress shopping. She couldn’t wait.”

Sanford said the event already has grown far beyond what she initially imagined, as a Born to Shine Facebook group has grown to over 200 members and Chippewa Valley residents continue to volunteer to add special touches to the day.

Born to Shine will have a DJ, photo booth, portrait photographer, pizza buffet, trays of desserts and elegant decorations, all made possible through donations and volunteers. The girls will all receive corsages and tiaras, while the boys will get boutonnieres and crowns.

“It’s going to be very fancy,” Peterson promised.

And that’s just for the dance itself. Earlier on the big day, volunteers at Shear Serenity Salon in Eau Claire will be offering free hair styling, makeup and nail painting for students attending the dance.

Students also will be able to choose from more than 100 donated prom dresses, an array of men’s dress attire and jewelry options, all donated and available for no cost, at an event from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, March 14, in the Hobby Lobby wing of Oakwood Mall. A volunteer will be on hand to do alterations, but Peterson is still seeking more helpers for that task.

At this point, the organizers don’t have any idea how many students will attend Born to Shine, but they contacted special education administrators at schools around the region — from Chippewa Falls to Durand and from Cadott to Elk Mound — and sent elegant black and gold personal invitations to all special needs students identified.

Eau Claire Memorial High School special education teacher Nicole Vinopal said staff sent the invitations home with students last week.

“The kids are very excited about it. That was all they talked about for the rest of the day,” Vinopal said, adding that she appreciates any chance for her students to be out in the community and feel like they’re included. “It gives them an opportunity that they haven’t had before and maybe opens doors for them that haven’t been open before.”

It’s also comforting for parents to know the event will be staffed by volunteers who know how to work with students with different needs, she said.

The deadline for RSVPs, which will be honored on a first-come, first-served basis, is March 16. A $5 fee will be charged for students to hold a spot.

The only limit, Peterson said, is the banquet hall at Metropolis has a capacity of 250 people, prompting organizers to ask parents to hang out in the bar/restaurant area during the dance to make room for more students and volunteers — and to ensure the dancers enjoy the freedom of not feeling like parents are looking over their shoulders. (Exceptions will be made for special circumstances.)

“We want it to be as close to a real prom as possible,” Peterson said.

While Sanford said her 16-year-old daughter is fortunate to be included in many regular school activities, she knows that isn’t always the case for students with special needs, who sometimes fret about what other classmates are thinking about them.

Even her daughter seems to be even more outgoing when attending Wisconsin Lions Camp, Special Olympics meets or other events designed for kids with special needs.

“They’ll walk up to anyone and talk to them. They’re best friends immediately,” Sanford said. “They don’t hold back at all when they’re around each other.”

That’s exactly the kind of atmosphere Sanford and Peterson hope to foster at Born to Shine.