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'Night to Shine': Prom experience a highlight for people with special needs

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A Night To Shine, a prom for individuals with special needs, was held at St. James United Methodist Church on Feb. 8. The event, staffed by hundreds of volunteers, was funded by a grant from the Tim Tebow Foundation, along with donations from local contributors.


By Kim Grizzard
The Daily Reflector

Sunday, February 10, 2019

When Chauncy stepped onto the red carpet, cameras flashed and cheers erupted from the crowd. As he was introduced, people he didn't even know lined the sidewalk, applauded and waved signs that read “You Look Amazing” and “Shine Bright.”

As he headed toward the entrance, Chauncy closed his eyes, maybe because it was too much to take in, or maybe to capture a moment that was like nothing else he had ever experienced in his 34 years.

But Chauncy's mother encouraged him to step through the doors with his eyes wide open. Beverly Gay did not want her son to miss a single moment of his prom. After all, it was his night to shine.

Night to Shine, sponsored by the Tim Tebow Foundation, is an occasion to show love to people with special needs. On Friday, St. James United Methodist Church joined more than 650 churches in all 50 states and two dozen countries in hosting the prom-night experience.

The event, the first of its kind in Greenville, was one of about 30 Night to Shine events in the state. Days before Valentine's, this was an occasion to show love to people with special needs.

“So many of our friends living with a disability have never experienced a prom before,” said parent volunteer Lisa Jordan, whose son, Spencer, was among the guests.

Nearly 200 guests – and more than twice that number of volunteers – turned out for the three-hour party in the church's gymnasium-turned-ballroom. Night to Shine had everything anyone would want from a prom – from boutonnières and corsages to a DJ and a dance floor, plus food, photography and rides in a limousine.

“Wow! We were not expecting this,” said Wesley Adams, who brought his daughter, Hannah, 39, to the event. “This is really something.”

There also were special touches designed with the guests in mind, including adapted menus for people with dietary restrictions, restrooms equipped with adult changing tables and a sensory room for guests who found the sights and sounds of it all to be a bit overwhelming.

For those not content to dance the night away, the prom featured separate rooms for karaoke and pet therapy.

Guests who decided to venture outside the ballroom to visit the dogs were greeted by Melina, a yellow Lab in a pink skirt, and Rex, a black Schnauzer in a bow tie. The dogs were a comfort to prom-goers like Danielle, who seemed a little anxious to find her mother before being greeted with a few puppy kisses.

Parents weren't far off. The prom included a respite room, where parents could have dinner while watching for their sons and daughters in a livestream video of the dance floor just down the hall.

Regina Blount of Plymouth searched the screen for her son, Taurus, in his hot-pink bow tie as she chatted with a friend.

“This is his first prom ever,” she said. “That's why this is extra special.”

Taurus, 30, loves dancing and dressing up, but Blount said she was even more excited than her son when the invitation arrived.

“I act like a big kid,” she said. “He didn't go to his prom. To me this is a big deal, a very big deal.”

Awaiting the guests were prom buddies, dates assigned to accompany them throughout the evening. Volunteer Melanie McLawhorn came to the church Friday morning to help decorate for the event and returned as a prom buddy for Chris, whom she met for the first time on Friday night.

“It's fun, even for the volunteers,” she said. “It's fun that I get to dress up again, too, just like I'm really going to prom.”

Prom buddy Brettelyn Little needed no introduction to Isaac, 18. She has worked with him through her job at the Autism Society of North Carolina since 2015.

“I couldn't imagine missing (prom) with Isaac,” she said. “We've become really good friends in the past couple of years, so I'm really glad I get to experience it with him.”

Joyce Day, pastor of congregational care at St. James, said so many volunteers wanted to be a part of the Night to Shine experience that the church had to turn many away.

“Getting the volunteers has been easy,” she said. “What's been difficult has been having to say we've got all we can take. Fire codes, those kinds of regulations, we have to eventually say we can't fit any more people in here. So many people have wanted to help.”

Some of those volunteers had sons and daughters with special needs, but others were high school and college students, pastors, teachers and law enforcement officers.

“It is so humbling to know that over 700 people wanted to hold my child’s hand or (the hand of) one of God's special children living with a disability,” Jordan said. “The love that comes from so many people leaves a mother of a child with special needs speechless.”

While a different venue, such as the Greenville Convention Center, might have been able to accommodate more guests and volunteers, Jordan said, hosting the event at a church is a key component of Night to Shine.

“It has to be at a church because it's about God's love for the children,” she said. “It's about the community shining as volunteers. It's about the churches shining, it's about putting a shining light on the special needs, but most of all it's about God shining and saying I love every one of the children.”

Gay said the event would be a memorable one for Chauncy and for her.

“I don't want it to end,” she said.

Organizers would like to make the prom an annual event. But they also hope that hosting Night to Shine will open doors year-round for people with special needs.

“It's not just a one shot, it was nice to have you, maybe we'll see you next year,” Day said. “It's really to make those personal connections

“It's just a good way to say, 'Here we are. We want to introduce ourselves to you. We want to get to know you.'”