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Shields creates ‘a night to remember’

Editor’s note: Many California attorneys make a difference in their communities by representing individual vulnerable clients, for free, on critical legal problems. Some, however, have found other unique ways to fulfill their obligation to public service. The California Bar Journal is highlighting some of those "just pursuits" in this occasional series. To nominate an attorney, email

Robert Shields Red Carpet
Rob Shields greets prom guests on the red carpet.
Photo by EastLake Church's photo team

Robert A. Shields, a partner at San Diego’s Wilson Turner Kosmo LLP, spends most of the year as a defense litigator representing Fortune 500 companies in product liability and breach of warranty claims. But come January, he does double duty helping his wife of 15 years, Cheryl, a former event planner, gear up for “A Night to Remember Prom.”

The couple began throwing the annual bash three years ago to honor special education students. The event, complete with limos, red carpet and paparazzi, pairs mainstream high school students with special needs students for a night of fun, dancing and camaraderie. For these students and their families it’s a life-altering experience. The Shieldses, parents of 10-year-old triplets, were inspired during a visit to Rob’s hometown of Rockford, Ill., where their local church held a similar affair. Back in San Diego, the couple carried the concept several giant steps further.

Now approaching its fourth year, the party has grown from 300 to 800 students, with 150 more on this year’s waiting list. Since they began, the couple has drawn interest from other communities from the Bay Area to Milwaukee about hosting a similar event. Already, students from Orange County and Palm Springs have traveled to San Diego to attend the prom there.

Describe 'A Night to Remember Prom,' how it works and what it looks like.

Robert and Cheryl Shields
Robert and Cheryl Shields
                                                                    Photo by Stephanie Diani

ROB: The way the night is set up ― we call the students with special needs honored guests, and we call our mainstream education students hosts ― so we have hosts and guests.

Throughout the year, we work on raising between $40,000 and $50,000 to host the event, which includes a variety of gifts-in-kind. Cheryl also works with corporations, which in years past have donated the flowers, food and advertisement. If we had to pay for everything out of pocket it would be $75,000 to $100,000. For example, Chick-fil-A donates all the food and caters the event at no charge. [Sid’s] Carpet Barn donated all 250 feet of red carpet. Even the local Wal-Mart donated some supplies, like paper goods, hair care products and makeup.

CHERYL: There are about 600 dresses to choose from, and everything’s sized and ready. The girls get to go shopping with their moms for free prom dresses and get fitted by volunteer seamstresses. Then the boys are fitted with their tuxedos, and we pay for the rentals.

ROB: This year we raised money to buy all the girls tiaras because we wanted them to feel special, like princesses on this big night. So, on the night of the prom, everyone comes dressed in a tuxedo or prom dress. At check-in, each person is partnered up one-on-one with their student host, and that’s who they’ll be with for the entire night. They’ll eat together, dance together, spend every minute together. We generally partner a guy with a guy and a girl with a girl because we’re trying to create friendships. It’s not a romantic prom. It’s all about understanding and building relationships between high school students.

Where do you hold the prom?

ROB: When we started thinking about hosting the prom, we had to think about things like lighting, sound equipment, parking, security. It’s very expensive to rent a place like that. So, we went to the local church that we attend and asked, “Can we use your facility?” They not only said yes, but they provided us with their parking lot team, their security team, building maintenance staff and a lot of volunteers.

What church is that?

ROB: EastLake Church in Chula Vista. The church doesn’t give us any money. We wouldn’t ask them for any because what they give us by way of the facility is huge. We’ve always wanted it to be a community event, not a church event.

So, the students arrive decked out in their finest and get paired up. What happens next?

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CHERYL: As soon as they’re partnered up, they proceed through different stations. At the first station, every girl gets a corsage and the boys get boutonnières. Then they stop at the jewelry station. We have hundreds of pieces of donated jewelry. The girls pick out necklaces and earrings, and they get to keep their selections. The next station they go to is hair and makeup. We had over 75 professional hair and makeup artists volunteer their talents. Each girl gets a full makeover ― even the boys go in and get a little gel in their hair. Many of them have never been glammed up before. Then they go to the next station, which is formal portraits. We have seven to eight professional photographers there, and the honored guests and hosts get photographed together. We print out the pictures on the spot, and they go home with a framed picture.

ROB: One thing about A Night to Remember Prom is there’s no limitation on [the student’s] diagnosis. A lot of organizations will limit a function just to Down syndrome or autism. We have no barrier. We have high-functioning autistic kids who don’t know whether they’re an honored guest or a host. And then we have the 22-year-old who has the mental capacity of a toddler. Come one, come all. For the students requiring more focused care, we’ve arranged to have a volunteer nurse or aide so that their host can be there just as a friend and doesn’t have to worry about the medical stuff.

CHERYL: After their portraits, they’re taken on a short limo ride. Our volunteer team of firefighters are on hand to help any student needing assistance getting in and out of the limo or in transporting their wheelchair. So every kid gets to ride in a limo.

The best part of the night is when they get out of the limo. There are about 300 to 500 people lining the 250-foot red carpet, and they’ve made signs and ask for autographs, just like people at a Hollywood premiere. The paparazzi are high-fiving and cheering. Some of the students love walking the red carpet so much that they’ll go back and start over. This gentleman [pointing to a photograph album of the night], he’s blind, and he loved hearing the sounds so much that he went back seven or eight times.

I read that you were inspired by a similar event the two of you attended during a visit to Rob’s hometown of Rockford, Ill. How did that come about, and how is this prom different?

ROB: We were there a few years ago visiting my family over Christmas. The church that we attended had a year-in-review where they summarized some cool things they did during the year. One of the things was to hold a prom for special needs students. We met the founder, sat across from her at her kitchen table and said, “We want to do the same thing in San Diego.” She gave us her binder and said, “This is how we do it.”

So we borrowed their name. We adopted some of their ideas. But theirs is in a much smaller town than San Diego. They don’t have as many students with special needs, 50 to 100 students in all. They have a sit-down, catered banquet.

Was there something that drew you to this particular type of event?

Robert Shields and family
Robert Shields and family
                                                         Photo by Stephanie Diani

ROB: We have no one with special needs in our family, but I’ve always had a sensitive heart for kids with special needs. I think it’s one of those things where you stop to think about the exclusions that those kids face. So when we saw those little kids being honored back in Illinois and saw the excitement on their faces, we couldn’t help but want to bring this event to San Diego.

Where do you get the students, and how to you persuade them to attend?

CHERYL: I go into the public schools and invite the mainstream students to sign up to be a host, and then I go into the special education classes and pass out invitations for our website for registration. When I asked the high school kids what makes you want to come to this evening to help kids with special needs, they said, “This prom is more fun than our own. We’re getting to know kids we would never get to know, and no one is there trying to act cool.”

ROB: For adults, I think it’s harder to relate or to take that first step with somebody who is different. But when you go to an event like this prom and you’re automatically paired up with high school students who already have so much in common, it’s really not awkward. They have fun with their guests. It’s really a natural relationship.

 How do parents react to the prom?

ROB: One thing we never thought about is what this would mean to the families of students with special needs. We threw the party for the benefit of the students, but as we’ve gotten to know the parents, a lot of them have told us that when you’re told your baby is going to be born with special needs, you have to start to think about the things they’re not going to be able to do or that society is not going to include them in.  Like they’re not going to proms, they may not graduate, they probably won’t get married.

But when you go to an event like this, to some extent it kind of fills the gap of what they’ve been missing. It becomes an opportunity to celebrate and honor. So, it becomes an event for the whole family. The students, the parents, the grandparents and siblings come. It becomes a rite of passage.

So the parents and other family members are invited, too?

CHERYL: They drop off their students, and we encourage them to go up and cheer on the red carpet. Then we invite them to a room behind the dance room, where there’s a video feed where they can watch it live. At the end of the night, the parents come in to the dance room. Most parents are on campus the entire night.

I’m sure you have many memorable moments from the events. Would you describe one?

ROB: My favorite story from last year happened at a dress fitting. The fittings are kind of a small party in themselves because there’s music playing and the kids come and they’re all excited.

One military dad came with his daughter and said he was in a hurry. He said he had somewhere to go and told his daughter that she had 30 minutes to pick out a dress. I politely told the dad to relax and reminded him that this is a big day for his daughter. I said some dads come here and spend the whole day. He said, “No, we’ve got to hurry.”

His daughter pulled out a few dresses to try on. When she came out of the dressing room, it took him by surprise to see how beautiful his daughter was with her first dress on, and he just started to cry. He said seeing her come out of the dressing room with her formal on reminded him of when she was a little girl meeting him with her mother at the ship when he came back from overseas and how excited he was to see her. He ended up staying the whole three hours. Every time she came out in a different dress, he was taking pictures, twirling her around and dancing with her.

So, for me, I got a front row seat to see a dad just really enjoying his daughter and for him to see her in a whole new light.

What’s been the response from your colleagues in the legal community to this venture?

ROB: People are proud of what we are doing. I think they want to be a part of it, of giving back to people and the community.

I go to work and earn my income so that I can do meaningful things, like this prom. It’s what gives meaning to your life. For some, their life’s calling is doing legal work. While I’m proud of the work I do and really enjoy my job, real joy and fulfillment comes in planning and hosting this event for the honored guests and their families.

It’s easy for people to give money, but when they come and see the event, they give more than money. They start giving their time.

Freelance writer Susan McRae interviewed the Shieldses. This is an edited version of their conversation.