These high school students threw an LGBTQ prom that few will forget.

Prom night for Blair Smith didn’t begin in a stretch limo. It started with a broken down car in a high school parking lot and a ticking clock.

Smith had spent the last four weeks pulling together the dance amid a punishing schedule that included fundraising, advertising, and studying for AP exams. Now he had chaperones to organize, food to distribute, and a quickly dwindling supply of minutes.

Frantic, he hitched a ride home, borrowed his mom's car and sped toward the event hall, where he and his fellow student organizers helped put the finishing touches on their hard work.


By 7 p.m., the room was ready.

Photo by Brian Reach.

This was no ordinary prom.

There was no king, no queen, and few tuxedos. Instead, there was a space for over 300 LGBTQ youth to dress and dance how they wanted and, more importantly, a space to be completely themselves without fear of judgment.

The students at NOVA Pride Prom gather for a group shot. Photo via NOVA Pride.

The May 12 event, dubbed "NOVA Pride Prom," began two years ago at Loudon Valley High School. Smith, who took charge of planning this year's event as his senior project, partnered with local LGBTQ advocacy organizations to expand the celebration to include all of northern Virginia.

The goal was to create a prom less beholden to tradition and more open to free expression.

The theme was "Celebrate Our Past," and the venue was decorated with artwork paying tribute to LGBTQ heroes and history.

"There wasn’t the typical prom drama that happens where, 'Oh my god, she’s wearing the same dress as me,' or 'Oh, is he dancing with her?'" Smith explains of NOVA Pride Prom. "It was really just a place where people could come together and meet for the first time."

Smith (center) with advisor Amy Cannava at Pride Prom. Photo via NOVA Pride.

In addition to the dance floor, Smith and his co-planners set up a lounge with board games and couches for students to socialize and tables where local advocacy organizations — NOVA Pride, GLSEN NOVA, and the Trevor Project — could distribute resources.

Creating spaces like NOVA Pride Prom where young LGBTQ people can feel at home is crucial to their development.

"'Comfortable' may sound like a simple term to a lot of people, but it is not something that some people are experiencing in their day to day life. Just being comfortable is a huge deal," explains Brian Reach, who runs NOVA Pride, one of the organizations that partnered with Smith to run the event.

"Celebrate our Past" #novaprideprom #lgbtqyouth #novapride #loveislove #loveislocal

A post shared by NOVA Pride (@northernvapride) on

Growing up in northern Virginia, Reach recalled being the frequent target of verbal abuse. One incident, in which he was called "the other f-word" over the school loudspeaker injured him so deeply he wound up faking sickness so that his mom would take him home.

"I had a lot of sick days," he says.

For Reach, NOVA Pride Prom was a chance to give LGBTQ young people from his home region a celebration a chance to celebrate their lives and achievements in a way he barely could have imagined as a student.

"This is by far probably the event I’m the most proud of," he says.

While Reach says conditions for LGBTQ people have improved dramatically in the politically divided area since he was growing up, tensions still occasionally threaten to spill over and sometimes do.

Earlier in the school year, the LGBTQ rights group Smith founded in his high school was asked to remove promotional posters at the urging of a local parent.

In January, a motion to add LGBTQ protections to Loudon County school system's employment discrimination policy was defeated in a hotly contested school board vote.

Still, Smith says teachers and administrators at his school have largely applauded his efforts to organize and support his LGBTQ classmates.

Photo via NOVA Pride.

Both Smith and Reach say they received almost no pushback from the community about the dance.

The venue, the Bellevue Conference and Events Center, provided the space at a large discount.

Fundraising efforts were met with messages of support and donations from a wide cross-section of parents, students, teachers, and local residents. (Despite the community support, NOVA Pride is still raising money to cover the costs of the dance and supports continuing outreach efforts to LGBTQ youth in the area.)

In many ways, NOVA Pride Prom was a typical school dance — which was exactly the point.

As the night wore on, chaperones and students dropped their guard, made new friends, and danced the Macarena.

The success of the event, Smith thinks, shouldn't surprise anyone. He credits to his fellow student organizers for helping realize the best version of what a prom can be. "It’s amazing … to see how hardworking students can be when they’re passionate about something," he says.

For other students, the night was anything but typical.

"I'm trans and bi. I’ve grown up in a family that would rather have a dead daughter than a son like me," one student wrote  in an anonymous e-mail to Reach. The dance, the student explained, was the first time they'd felt not only accepted, but happy and among friends — something they never knew was possible.

The message was aglow with joy, gratitude, and perhaps most importantly, comfort.

"I can’t believe it was real," they effused. "I got to be myself and live the way I wanted."

Simon & Garfunkel's song "Bridge Over Troubled Water" has been covered by more than 50 different musical artists, from Aretha Franklin to Elvis Presley to Willie Nelson. It's a timeless classic that taps into the universal struggle of feeling down and the comfort of having someone to lift us up. It's beloved for its soothing melody and cathartic lyrics, and after a year of pandemic challenges, it's perhaps more poignant now than ever.

A few years a go, American singer-songwriter Yebba Smith shared a solo a capella version of a part of "Bridge Over Troubled Water," in which she just casually sits and sings it on a bed. It's an impressive rendition on its own, highlighting Yebba's soulful, effortless voice.

But British singer Jacob Collier recently added his own layered harmony tracks to it, taking the performance to a whole other level.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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