Esteban Rueda, 17, stands with a white board where his classmates wrote all of the reasons why Ellen DeGeneres should go to prom with him.
By Maggie Quick, Globe Correspondent
After winter break, thoughts of prom season can bring stress and drama to high school students. It’s easy to get caught up in the mess of tuxedos, hairspray, and glitter that surrounds the rite of passage, but this year, the town of Maynard is showing prom isn’t always about what’s on the outside.
Esteban Barriga, a 17-year-old Maynard High senior with autism, has a very special date in mind for the big dance. Barriga wants to go to prom with Ellen DeGeneres, and the people of Maynard are working to make his dream a reality.
After Maribel Rueda, Barriga’s mother, reached out to her friends and his school about the dream, a video campaign starring Barriga and the citizens of Maynard was launched.
Through word of mouth, Barriga’s high school classmates and teachers, the fire department, police department, local McDonald’s, a married gay couple from Everett and more have contributed over thirty videos to his cause, all urging Ellen to “say yes to Esteban.”
The clips are being compiled into one video that will be posted online in the coming days and spread across social media to reach Ellen. A spokesperson for the show could not immediately be reached.
Before Barriga had settled on the daytime talk show host as his date, he did not want to attend the dance.
“He said, ‘I’m not going to prom because I don’t have any friends. I don’t have anybody,’” Rueda, said. “It broke my heart.”
Now, Barriga has a whole town behind him.
“It’s been an unbelievable experience because here’s this kid who thought he had no friends at high school, who thought he was on his own—now he’s suddenly the most popular kid in school,” Rueda said.
Bryan Kiley, a Maynard High junior, filmed all of the clips at the high school. He met Barriga last year in gym class, where the two played basketball together every day. This year, Kiley decided to sign up for Best Buddies at the high school, a local chapter of a global organization dedicated to creating friendship and supporting people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and requested to be Barriga’s buddy because they got along so well.
“He’s always funny; he’s always smiling,” Kiley said of Barriga. “He’s always in a good mood and puts people in a good mood.”
Kiley filmed whole classes saying “Ellen, say yes to Esteban!” and also interviewed individual students for the video.
“A lot of people thought it was a really cool thing and really wanted to see it happen,” Kiley said.
Barriga loves to watch The Ellen DeGeneres Show every day. His three dreams, according to his mom, are to be an actor, meet Jimmy Fallon, and go to prom with Ellen.
“He’ll say ... ‘Mom, she’s so funny!’” Rueda said.
One of the videos features a guy dancing like Ellen and trying to convince her that Esteban is a good dancer. Others feature foreign language classes at the high school yelling “say yes to Esteban” in French and Spanish. Aubuchon Hardware in Maynard also contributed a video.
“We see people all day long and we figured it was a good thing to do,” said John Bairos, store manager. “I don’t particularly know the kid but I know a lot of kids that work for me, and some of them know him … The more publicity, the better the chance he has of accomplishing it.”
The experience has especially touched Rueda because they have only been living in the town for a year.
“In high school, [students with autism] are bullied, they’re excluded … they don’t have many friends,” she said. “They’re outcasts, if you will. I hate using that word but it’s true. For me as a mother, to see the response Esteban is getting, says a lot about the place I moved to.
“It was the best decision I made, to move,” Rueda said. “It completely changed my life and Esteban’s life. We have never been so welcome in a town.”
As a volunteer with Autism Speaks, a leading autism science and advocacy organization, in Latino communities around Boston, Rueda knows Barriga might not have much to look forward to after high school. He will attend graduation this year but will stay in school until he is 22. After that, “his life is very uncertain,” Rueda said. “You lose a lot of services you usually have.”
Because of that, the video will include a reminder about the often-forgotten adults living with autism. Mariana Barriga, Esteban’s 7-year-old sister who is narrating the video, will end by asking Ellen to help spread autism awareness so teenagers like her brother, who will eventually become adults, have a place to go after prom.
“Whether Ellen says yes or no I think my son will not have a problem going to prom,” Rueda said. “I think he’s learning a lot form this. He’s learning he’s not alone.”