East Hanover, NJ- “It looks like a mermaid dress.” Hanover Park High School Senior Gianna Brunini was describing the gown she would don for prom later that day, when she suddenly gasped. “Oh my god, I just realized something!” she blurted with a smile. “The prince’s name in The Little Mermaid is Eric. I’m going to prom with a guy named Eric, and my dress is like the little mermaid.” She laughed, that ever-present smile on her face as she continued, “Can you call that a cliché?”
Weeks earlier, Brunini, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at 2 years old, was surprised with a “promposal” from former Rutgers University football player Eric LeGrand. After being paralyzed from a spinal cord injury on the field in 2010, LeGrand befriended Brunini at Kessler Institute in West Orange, where they often raced their wheelchairs through the halls. When the athlete-turned-motivational-speaker led an assembly at Hanover Park High School last month, he called Brunini up on stage and popped the question.
“I said yes, of course,” Brunini said. “He asked me in front of like 400 people, with cameras everywhere, so how could you say no?” Brunini said, explaining that she would have said yes even if he had asked her over a casual cup of coffee.
“Our kids went wild,” Hanover Park High School Principal Thomas Callanan told The Asbury Park Press. “There was a standing ovation for Eric and Gianna. It was probably one of the greatest moments I've ever seen as a high school educator of a kid being recognized, honored and cheered on by her peers."
Although she is sad to see high school end and is determined to keep in touch with her friends, Brunini has some big dreams of her own. “I want to become an actress,” she said, outlining her plans to attend New York University and then land a role on a television show or movie. Brunini has acted in several plays throughout middle school and high school, including Grease, Westside Story, Godspell and Into the Woods, and has also filmed regular YouTube videos in her spare time.
Along with her hobbies of acting, singing, eating and spending time with friends and family, Brunini also volunteers her time helping others. She is a peer buddy for children with autism, and she attended the sixth annual “A Walk to Believe” in support of Team LeGrand of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation.
Brunini said that she would enjoy traveling and giving motivational speeches like LeGrand, explaining that her disability has taught her, above all, to value the people in her life. “All you can do is try, and if you fail, try again,” she continued, echoing the words of her inspiring prom date. “Keep doing it over and over, and you’ll get it right.”
On the evening of June 9, Brunini’s friends and family gathered at her house to send the two off to prom at Brooklake Country Club. After Brunini appeared on the porch in her mermaid dress, both gown and smile glittering, she and LeGrand headed off to dance the night away.