“You make my heart smile,” exclaimed Austin Andes Friday evening at The Harvest church in Lexington as he celebrated prom night after being crowned prom king. His excitement was echoed for all.
Andes’ moment may seem like any other teen’s highlight from prom, but this isn’t just another prom. This is Night to Shine, a prom night experience especially for young people and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities sponsored by The Tim Tebow Foundation. Andes and his peers were all crowned king and queen, being praised for their exceptionality. At this prom, everyone’s royalty.
The Harvest church hosted Night to Shine along with hundreds of churches across the country in all 50 states, and even other countries including Haiti, Friday night as a kick off to Valentine’s Day. Love is the message as all guests felt love and hope. The Harvest is the only church in the Midlands to host the prom. Churches in the Low country and Upstate hosted the prom simultaneously.
“Across the nation, we were in every state in 375 churches, 11 foreign countries,” said Dee Freeland, event director for The Harvest and Night to Shine. “There were 170,000 volunteers who served 70,000 people with special needs (collectively). Locally, we served 175 people with special needs.”
This is Andes second year attending but quite a memorable one for the Irmo High School senior. Just like any other high school senior, he expressed excitement about graduating and life after high school. He even communicated his desire to move out of his parent’s home at some point and get a job.
“…You know what? In a few years or something I want to move out of my parent’s house,” said Andes, later adding, “I want a job.”
This may seem humdrum for any teen but for Andes it signals independence and a longing to be like everyone else. Years ago, it may have seem laughable for someone with special needs to live on their own or even with roommates. But currently,according to the Department of Disabilities and Special Needs, there are opportunities for individuals living in their own place with assistance from others.
Until that day comes, Andes continues dancing the night away and socializing with everyone he runs into. Andes was paired with a buddy, or prom date, for the evening. All guests who didn’t bring their date were paired with a volunteer buddy. Together, they took prom pictures, ate dinner and danced and talked about anything and everything their hearts desired.
A Night to Remember
Limousine rides were available along with hair, makeup and shoeshine for those who need or want extra attention to their appearance. Parents and caregivers dropped off the guests and were often rushed away as the guests were ready to have their night of fun.
“We had a red carpet entrance, provided florals, took pictures, served dinner,” said Freeland, explaining the night. “Guests also walked away with a gift bag from the Tim Tebow Foundation. A recording artist (Del Rosa Flint) performed songs in addition to a DJ.”
Linda Gray made it obvious to her mom that she was ok and didn’t need her by her side. “I’m good mom,” said Gray. Her happiness shined throughout the night. A corsage completed her red prom gown and tiara she received later in the evening. Gray and all guests received corsages and boutonnieres and at the end of the night they received a framed prom picture capturing their special night.
The dance floor stayed crowded throughout the evening with a majority of the guests and their dates dancing the night away. Mike Wills had intentions to dance to every song but there were a couple he decided to sit out. Wills lives with roommates in a group home and while his disability makes it hard to communicate sometimes, his enthusiasm and profound use of technology make up for lack of words.
At the End of the Night
By 9 p.m., the night wound down and everyone said good byes for the evening. All the guests received a prom picture commemorating their special dance. This is Lexington’s second year hosting the special needs prom and allowing volunteers in the community to serve.
Freeland said 270 volunteers fulfilled their commitments to serve this year. Volunteers were elected to be buddies, or prom dates, and work behind the scenes including decorating, food prep, set up and in the respite room. The respite room was offered to parents and caregivers who didn’t want to leave altogether but were allowed to take a break.
“This event takes an army to pull off but it’s worth every effort,” said Freeland, who began planning the event months in advance.
Night to Shine is one of the missions of the Tim Tebow Foundation. The foundation began in 2010 with intentions to “bring faith, hope and love to those needing a brighter day in the darkest hour of need,” according to their mission. Their other areas include: Timmy’s Playrooms in children’s hospitals, Tebow Cure Hospital providing physical and spiritual healing in Philippines, W15H providing dreams to children with life threatening diseases, Team Tebow service club and Orphan Care/Adoption Aid.
Learn more about Night to Shine at timtebowfoundation.org.