Speaking at the 20th annual prom for teens battling kidney disease, organizer Lori Hartwell noticed that all the attendees had their phones out. Of course.
Then she realized the screens were all trained on her.
“They were listening to every word I said,” said Hartwell, who founded the nonprofit Renal Support Network that puts on the event. “It makes me realize how much they need these types of activities, to connect over their common issues.”
About 200 young adults descended on the Glendale Hilton on Sunday night to dance and socialize with peers who understand their struggles with chronic illness. Many of the attendees, who come from all across Southern California, are on dialysis or are learning to live with a kidney transplant, Hartwell said.
Frequent Renal Teen Prom entertainer Jack Black stopped by to perform and take pictures with the young attendees — all festive lighting and sparkly curtains in the background that underscored this year’s theme, “All That Glitters.”
“Most important is just seeing all the kids and young adults with — I can’t even express it — just this happiness, glee face,” Hartwell said.
When Hartwell created the first Renal Teen Prom, when she was about 30 years old, she said she wanted to connect with her younger peers in a fun setting, outside of lectures about lifestyle and medication. She wanted to see them doing well.
The first prom of its kind was held at Notre Dame High School in 1999 with the help of four seniors. To this day, it’s still a tradition for Notre Dame students to volunteer at the event.
Unfortunately, some teens who want to go to Renal Teen Prom end up staying home because they don’t feel well. Hartwell, now 52, missed her own senior prom at Herbert Hoover High School because she was on dialysis between 12 and 24 years old — the same age range of event attendees.
“We do often have a lot of disappointment because of our illness,” said Hartwell, who wasn’t sure she would be able to attend the 20th anniversary event because she’s recovering from a recent surgery on her ankle.
Diagnosed with kidney disease at the age of 2, Hartwell has had four kidney transplants and more than 50 surgeries.
In Hartwell’s speech at the event, she acknowledged her husband, Dean, in a shout-out to caregivers.
“We all have those people that help us,” she said.
What surprised Hartwell was how many attendees came up to her after the talk to let her know that she is their inspiration. Some told her they had been meaning to let her know that for years.
“I was overwhelmed,” Hartwell said. “I felt really loved and cherished.”
Also on hand at the event were state Assemblywoman Laura Friedman and state Sen. Anthony Portantino, who offered proclamations of support.
It’s been a tradition to hold the event on Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend because teens do not undergo dialysis on Sundays and Monday is a holiday, improving their chances of attending the festivities, Hartwell said.