Human Dignity

On the Scene at ‘Night to Shine’

When I first heard that my church planned to host a “Night to Shine” prom, my immediate thoughts were skeptical: That sounds like a huge undertaking. How could we possibly take this on? I am beyond grateful, now, that I kept my thoughts to myself, moved beyond the trepidation, and took part in this big night.

A ministry of the Tim Tebow Foundation, Night to Shine is an enchanting prom experience for people ages fourteen and up who have special needs. The first Night to Shine was held in 2015, and by 2019, this special event involved more than 200,000 volunteers honoring some 100,000 guests in more than 600 churches across 50 states and 24 countries. Night to Shine proms are always held in churches, usually on the same evening worldwide, and they are always offered at no charge to guests and their caregivers. 

Most Night to Shine events follow a format similar to what I witnessed in my Indianapolis church. The festivities begin at 6:00pm, but parking lot attendants are out well in advance to direct guests to their drop-off point. Upon entry, each guest is checked in and paired with his or her “buddy” for the evening. A buddy is not a guest’s “date,” but is a volunteer dressed in a manner befitting the special occasion and is there to serve as his guest’s personal companion for the evening. A buddy’s primary mission is to see to it that his guest has the best experience possible. In addition, all guests are required to register in advance so that church volunteers will have access to vital information such as food allergies, sensory concerns, special communications needs, and the like.

A night to feel special

After check-in, parents and caregivers are free to retreat to a respite room hosted by volunteers, supplied with refreshments, and designed to provide a restful and supportive atmosphere. Meanwhile, the first stop for guests is the flower table, where each one receives a corsage or boutonniere created with fresh flowers. Next comes the literal red-carpet treatment. An announcer standing at the head of the red carpet booms each introduction over a loudspeaker: Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you, Charlene! . . . Put your hands together for Christopher! The crowd lining the carpet cheers, applauds, and waves signs as if in a paparazzi line. If a guest has a sensitivity to noise, the announcement is done softly and the cheering silently or by whisper.

Following the red-carpet entrance, buddies take their guests to the “dance hall” for some unstructured get-acquainted time. At our church, the dance hall was our multi-purpose worship space dramatically transformed into a candle-lit prom atmosphere with soft music, silver stars hanging from the ceiling, and white cloth-draped tables. (The “candles” were all battery-operated lights; no fire hazards permitted.) 

Somewhere around 6:30, the senior pastor welcomes everyone with a greeting and opening prayer before dinner. In our case, dinner took place in the gym, which had undergone an even more dramatic transformation involving fresh flowers, festive lights, and white deco mesh drapes dressing up the ceiling. Our middle school youth group served dinner—a wonderful feast that culminated in an ice cream sundae bar for dessert.

Before and after dinner, guests have several optional activities. They can have a professional picture taken in front of the Tebow Foundation backdrop and pose for additional fun photos in the photo booth. At our event, two Indianapolis Colts cheerleaders were on-site to sign autographs and pose for photos with guests. Hair, makeup, manicure, and shoeshine stations were also available, along with a karaoke room and ongoing limo rides. From my observations, it was a toss-up between the karaoke room and the limo rides as to which was most popular. 

Throughout the evening, volunteer medical and law enforcement personnel were also on-site to tend to any emergencies, and Naomi—a trained service dog wearing a glittery “Pet Me” vest—was available to be a furry friend.  

As dinner wrapped up, the deejay kicked the music up a notch, and before long an impromptu dance-a-thon ensued. Who says wheelchairs and walkers have to get in the way of some good, clean dancing fun? Picture these scenes:

  • A pair of sixteen-year-old twins, each decked out in full prom attire right down to their sparkly sandaled toes, laughing wildly as their buddies “dance” their wheelchairs around in circles to the music
  • A full-room “Cha-Cha Slide” involving church workers, caregivers, one of the on-site nurses, several middle schoolers freshly dismissed from kitchen duties, and the evening’s special guests and their buddies
  • A fiftyish-person-long conga line of dancers, ranging in age from young teens to late fifties, winding its way across the room and back 

Are you smiling at this sight yet? As I watched the space that my church regularly uses for Sunday worship converted into a Friday night dance hall to celebrate people known and loved by the God worshipped in that space, a deeply satisfying joy settled in. The room rocked and rolled with happiness, and the excitement was contagious.

The final item on the evening’s agenda is always the crowning ceremony, which includes a message from the pastor and a message by video from Tim Tebow. In our dance hall, everyone was having so much fun that several minutes passed between the music dying down and the actual crowning of the kings and queens of the ball. On schedule or not, though, each guest did receive a crown or tiara, and each had the choice of being crowned by his buddy or by one of the Colts cheerleaders.

At the end of the crowning ceremony, as guests and buddies began making their way back to the coat check to reconnect with caregivers, I took the opportunity to ask guests, “What was your favorite part?” The most common answer I heard was “Everything!” 

Special needs, same value

The seeds for Night to Shine trace back to Tim Tebow’s teen years in the Philippines where his parents served as missionaries. While visiting a remote village one day, Tim met a boy named Sherwin. Sherwin had a congenital foot deformity, and his community looked upon him as “cursed.” All that started to change, though, when the villagers saw Tim treat Sherwin with dignity and respect and as a valuable human being, not as someone cursed. They realized then, as Tim wrote on the Night to Shine website, “that the good news of Jesus Christ applies to everyone.” And so, in 2010, Tebow created the Tim Tebow Foundation to “bring faith, hope and love to those needing a brighter day in their darkest hour of need.” Night to Shine fulfills that order beautifully. 

Night to Shine came to my church because of a little four-year-old boy named Jeremiah John March, or JJ for short. Jeremiah has Down syndrome, and when his mother Lorrie learned of Night to Shine, she knew right away that she had to get involved. The evening I’ve just recounted was the second one she directed. Her first one took place in 2018 in New York before the family relocated to Indiana, and she was very pleased to see that her New York church picked up where she left off and hosted a 2019 one as well.

The Tim Tebow Foundation is “wonderful,” Lorrie says. “So many foundations are all about them [the foundations], and I really feel like this one is not about them, but about the church connecting these people and their families into the local church. It’s about loving them and showing them God’s love and letting them know that they are valued and accepted.”

As a mother, of course, she wants people to see the inherent value of her son, but as a Christian, she wants to demonstrate tangibly the value of all people regardless of physical or mental challenges. “God made them for a purpose, and He has a plan for each of them,” she continues. “Just because they can’t walk, or talk, or have some struggle, they aren’t scary, and we don’t have to be uncomfortable around them. They really are just like you and me. They can laugh, they can joke, and they can enjoy the different parts of the evening just as we do.” 

And while bestowing love is most certainly reason enough to get involved, there’s an additional benefit for the volunteers—a greater sense of comfort and a knowledge that people with special needs are just as they are, with the same kinds of hopes, desires, and feelings. Many people are uncomfortable around special needs children and adults, not because they don’t care, but because they don’t know what to say or how to react. “Jeremiah isn’t scary,” Lorrie says. “He’s very social, and though he’s not verbal yet, he loves to wave at people. When you look at him, you know he’s different, but once people get to know him, all of that melts away.” He’s affectionate and loving, she says, joking that he looks like “the mayor” when he walks down his school hallway waving at everyone.  

Many families with a special needs member avoid church because of a perceived stigma or simply to avoid potential awkwardness. Night to Shine is a delightful way to dissolve barriers and to cultivate a healthy receptivity in the church to people whom our wider society might segregate. The way people are treated affects how they are perceived, both how they think of themselves and how others in the community see them. Whether or not our guests ever come back on a Sunday, we want to be warmly receptive to them and publicly affirm their inherent dignity and value. 

Share the joy

We hosted 112 honored guests that night, and although Lorrie spearheaded it all and did the lion’s share of the advance work, the entire effort involved more than 200 volunteers. Although the Tebow Foundation provides guidance and some funding, it was unquestionably a large undertaking for a church, but from everything I saw, it was more than worth it. Lorrie had said that our guests’ disabilities wouldn’t keep them from enjoying different parts of the evening, and if their favorite part was “everything,” I’d say she was right. I’d also say it may have been a toss-up regarding who enjoyed “everything” more—our guests or the hosts. The following Sunday, our pastor mentioned in his sermon that his face actually hurt from smiling so much. 

Joy is contagious. It’s one of those things that, when you give it away, it can come back around thirtyfold, sixtyfold, or even a hundredfold. Night to Shine is a wonderful way to brighten someone’s day and to find your own day brightened even more. Even if your face hurts from the smiling.

© 2019 Terrell Clemmons

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About the author

Terrell Clemmons

Terrell Clemmons is a full-time wife and mother of three, and a part-time freelance writer from Indianapolis. She also writes for Salvo and The Lookout magazines. She can be reached at www.TerrellClemmons.com.