Park City High School students with special needs named as prom royalty |

Park City High School students with special needs named as prom royalty

CJ Haerter and Ava Jennings have been friends since preschool

CJ Haerter and Ava Jennings are all smiles after being named Park City High School senior prom king and queen. Haerter and Jennings, students with special needs, have known each other since they were in preschool.
Photo by Margaret Haerter

Many people may look back at their senior proms with delight, embarrassment or despair, but two Park City High School seniors — CJ Haerter and Ava Jennings — will reflect on last Saturday’s school dance with pride, respect and gratitude.

They were voted as prom king and queen, and as their names were announced, the students who attended the gala erupted in cheers.

“Many people screamed my name, and it was so great,” Haerter said.

Like Haerter, Jennings was “super excited.”

“Everyone in the place was shouting and clapping,” she said.

The vigorous applause meant something a little more to the students, because these two 18-year-olds have special needs.

Haerter has Down syndrome, and Jennings is “developmentally delayed,” according to her mother, Kristen Jennings.

Haerter’s parents, Margaret and Chris Haerter, were both humbled that the senior class bestowed their son and his best friend with the honor of prom royalty.

“It’s a great reflection on the student body that they elected these two,” Chris said. “It’s way cool. I think it’s a wonderful comment on the students.”

Margaret agreed, and said the honor is so “heartwarming.”

“I don’t think there are enough adjectives to explain how one would feel about this,” she said. “As special needs parents, you hope for your children to have the opportunities that everyone else has, so to have them be king and queen is just amazing.”

Throughout the night, the two students enjoyed the dance and recognition.

“I loved being the king,” CJ said. “I was so happy for Ava to be queen. It was fun.”

Ava was filled with excitement, but also thought she and CJ had a good chance of receiving the titles.

“I had a feeling that we would get it,” she said. “It was still surprising.”

Being named prom royalty is also special for the two because they have been best friends since preschool.

They met at Park City Cooperative Preschool, and attended McPolin Elementary School, Margaret said.

“They went their separate ways for a while, until I pulled CJ over to Trailside so he could be with his best friend Ava,” she said.

Kristen remembers how her daughter and CJ formed a group known as the “Fab Five” with three other friends in elementary school.

“They were best buddies all through school,” she said of the group. “Unfortunately, one of them has passed.”

The bond between CJ and Ava strengthened throughout the years.

“Ava certainly is kind of motherly,” Kristen said. “She likes to take care of CJ and kind of bosses him around, but he takes it. They are so sweet with each other. It’s her happy place to be with him.”

Ava Jennings, left, asked CJ Haerter to prom with a Spider-Man-themed invitation during his shift at Lucky Ones Coffee at the Park City Library. Haerter, an avid Spider-Man fan, accepted the invitation with a resounding “Yes.”
Photo by Margaret Haerter

Not only are they classmates and best friends, they also work at Lucky Ones Coffee at the Park City Library, and that’s where Ava asked CJ, an avid Spider-Man fan, to prom.

“I made a poster that said, ‘CJ. Will you be my Spider-Man and swing into prom with me?’” she said. “Our manager Lindsay Jones asked him to read the poster and told him that I had some exciting news for you.”

After reading the poster, CJ responded with a resounding, “Yes.”

“It surprised me, but I was so happy to go to prom with Ava,” he said.

The lead up to the two becoming prom king and queen happened over a couple of weeks, when the 392 PCHS seniors cast votes through an online ballot.

“CJ came home one day with a screen shot that said he and Ava were in the top three for prom king and queen,” Margaret said. “I was a little too afraid for it to be that good of news, so I asked what was going on. And he said, they just voted on the computer. I asked who he voted for, and he said, ‘Me and Ava.’”

Ava also voted for herself and CJ.

“It was totally the same,” she said laughing.

Park City High School Principal Roger Arbabi said the vote showed how much the students love CJ and Ava.

“CJ and Ava are beloved members of our community, and fully integrated into the fabric of our school,” he said. “They attend many of our home games, it doesn’t matter the sport. CJ is always there, rooting the teams on, and Ava is on our softball team.”

The vote also shows the quality of the Park City High School students, Arbabi said.

“It just shows the compassion and the types of students that we have here,” he said. “It’s a great honor to be the principal of a school where the kids care so much.”

Kristen feels the same about the students as Arbabi does.

“I feel an amazing affinity for the kids who voted for Ava and CJ,” she said. “The nomination, itself, made me feel that we have a great group of kids in our community and around our kids. It really hit it home.”

The duo is already looking toward the future.

CJ just landed a new job at PC MARC, and plans to continue his post high school education at the Park City School District’s Learning Center, and Ava will attend Utah State University in the Aggies Elevated program designed for young adults with intellectual disabilities.

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