A Night to Shine: Prom treats special needs community to celebrity experience

Alivia Bencze arrives at Friday night’s Night to Shine Prom at Fairview: The Grace Place in Falkville. (W.C. Mann for The Cullman Tribune)

FALKVILLE, Ala. – On Friday evening, Fairview Church of God, “The Grace Place,” in Falkville hosted its fourth annual Night to Shine Prom for the special needs community of a multi-county area, including Cullman County.  Night to Shine is a program 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.” Night to Shine events took place in 721 locations worldwide Friday night, with an estimated 115,000 special needs guests and 215,000 volunteers.

Pre-registrations for Friday night’s prom numbered 170, and walk-ins were welcome as well. The number was down slightly from last year’s 180 pre-registrations, but traffic at the church indicated that this year would likely still see an increase in guest and community participation. An hour before the event officially began, parking lots that were still open at that time last year were already full, and parking was spilling over into a field behind the church. The total, including guests, volunteers, law enforcement, EMTs and others appears to have exceeded last year’s estimated attendance total of 600.

Grace Place Pastor Milan Dekich agreed, telling The Tribune at the opening of the evening’s festivities, “Night to Shine is a very special night for all of us and our community. We have more churches involved this year than we ever had before, more attendees, more volunteers. We have approximately 170 attendees-that’s special needs people-and their families will be coming tonight, hundreds of volunteers, multiple churches involved. We just feel blessed to be a part of what God is doing here, and of this wonderful night that celebrates these people, a night that-very few times they get celebrated; tonight is their night to be celebrated!

“You know, several fathers and mothers have told me that no one has ever done anything like this for them before, and they’re so happy to come. For the last several weeks, if I’ve run into attendees, they’re excited to be here, they’re looking forward to it. It’s going to be a wonderful night!”

The guests became stars at the prom. They got to roll up to the front of the church in limousines, where they met their “buddies,” volunteers who served as their escorts and helpers for the evening. Then they entered the building on a red carpet, through a gauntlet of picture-snapping paparazzi and cheering fans, to get their official prom pictures made.  The ladies could then 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.  Dinner was on the house for guests and their family members, thanks to numerous local donors and volunteers. Disney princesses and other characters roamed the halls and dance floor for hugs and selfies, while Santa Claus, on vacation after a busy Christmas season, dropped by to say hi, do a little dancing and pose for a few pictures. Even Elvis showed up to crank out a few tunes.

The big moment of the evening was a video greeting from Tebow himself, who led the crowning of all the special guests as the Kings and Queens of the Prom.

Cindy Yahn, a Cullman-area special needs parent who has worked with special needs students and coached in the community’s Miracle League, talked to The Tribune as she watched some of her former students enjoy the red-carpet experience.

“It means the world to all of us, especially the people in the group homes,” she said. “They get out, and they get to sing and show all their talents, and have time with people, and we get to share that with them, so we’re blessed.”

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W.C. Mann