A Night to Shine for the area’s special needs community

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A guest gets into the spirit at Friday’s Night to Shine Prom at Fairview: The Grace Place in Falkville. (W.C. Mann for The Cullman Tribune)

FALKVILLE – On Friday evening, Fairview Church of God/The Grace Place in Falkville hosted its third annual Night to Shine Prom for the special needs community of a multi-county area, including Cullman County.  Night to Shine is a ministry of the Tim Tebow Foundation, which defines it as “an unforgettable prom night experience, centered on God’s love, for people with special needs ages 14 and older.” More than 600 Night to Shine events took place worldwide Friday night.

Guests arrived and were assigned “buddies” to serve as their prom dates.  Then they became stars: they got to roll up to the front of the church in limousines supplied by Hartselle business owner Jason Wisner, enter the building on a red carpet through a gauntlet of picture-snapping paparazzi and cheering fans, and get their prom pictures made.  The ladies could go for hair and makeup, and the gents could get their shoes shined, even if they were wearing sneakers!

From there, they could go show off their vocal chops with a little karaoke in the church sanctuary or hit the dance floor in the gym with a DJ from Sullivan Productions.  Dinner was on the house for guests and their family members, thanks to Zaxby’s and numerous local donors and volunteers. Anna and Elsa came to hang out with fans, and even helped a few vocalists with their karaoke renditions of “Let It Go.”  Santa and Mrs. Claus, still on vacation after a busy Christmas season, dropped by to say hi and pose for a few selfies. Even Elvis dropped by to crank out a few tunes.

The big moment of the evening was a video greeting from Tebow himself, followed by the crowning of all the special guests as the Kings and Queens of the prom.

Falkville Police and volunteers provided security, while firefighters and EMTs kept everyone healthy.  In all, up to 350 volunteers from Grace Place and other area churches and community agencies made sure everyone was safe, happy and having fun.

This year’s event was big.  Grace Place’s first prom in 2017 drew 67 guests; 2018 saw 138 pre-registered guests alone, with the event open to a limited number of walk-ins, as well.  This year saw 180 pre-registrations. Add to those a number of walk-ins and all the volunteers, and leaders estimate that this year’s event may have brought 600 people to the church Friday evening.

Grace Place Pastor Milan Dekich talked to The Tribune about his church’s decision to become involved in the Tim Tebow Foundation’s Night to Shine program:

“I saw an article about it on Facebook or on the internet, and I said, ‘We’ve always been a church that wants to serve the least of these,’ and I said if there’s a community that’s unserved, it’s the special needs community, because no one does anything for them.  And I said, ‘That’s something we can do.’

“And so I applied to the Tim Tebow Foundation–you had to apply for it, and I did–and we were selected as a church to do it.  And so they help us with some of the structure and support. And we got together and got volunteers and did it that first year, did it again last year, and we’re doing it again this year.  And so it keeps growing: we’ve got more this year than we’ve ever had before.”

Event coordinator Danielle Hayes shared, “We have a team of about 22 of us.  We start back first of October planning; we meet every week, just about. There’s Kelli (McAnally) and Kim (Baker), which is also the coordination with me.  Kelly does most of our registration, Kim does most of the buddies.”

Why do you do it?

“The people, the joy of the people, just seeing their faces when they come down the red carpet is more than you can imagine to take in and explain to people.  It’s fantastic! It’s joy! We love doing it. We love being a part of it.

“We love the people.  We do softball with them, we do basketball with them, pageants, we take them on field trips here from the church.  I just love being around them. I grew up–my aunt and uncle are special needs–so it’s always been a passion of mine.”

Hayes added, “I want to brag on my team.  My team has been dedicated;  this whole week, we have spent so many hours–I’d say, past two days, we spent 10 to 14 hours working on stuff this week.  We took it home with us and worked on it. We spent from 8 (a.m.) to 6 (p.m.) last night decorating; then we got here at 8 (Friday) and started all over again.

“So I just want to brag on how dedicated they are, and how much they love this event as much as I do.  And thank Milan for having the vision to start this three years ago. So, it’s just an awesome event. I’ve got a great team, and I’m blessed to be a part of it.”

The Night to Shine program is increasing in exposure and popularity across the country.  Grace Place picked up some guests from the Decatur area after Central Baptist Church there sold out of pre-registrations and had to cap the number of guests due to space requirements.

Said Dekich, “It just tells you just how many special needs people there are in our community.  And, a lot of times, they go by unseen, because no one notices them. They don’t go out, they don’t do anything else.  And so, this gives them the chance to come out and celebrate and meet other people and have fun.

“And that’s what it’s about: just showing them–and that’s the vision Tim Tebow had for this–is to show them the love of God, to show them that we love them, that we care about them, that they are special to us, and we want them to have fun. And so we want them to experience the love of God through us while we’re here, so that’s why we’re here.”

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