The anticipation is almost too much to bear, shares Melodie Griffin, mother of two special needs young adults — one by birth and one by choice. Jonathan Griffin, 25, and Abby Robinson, 21, have looked forward to Night to Shine each February for the past four years. The Tim Tebow Foundation event brings so much joy to their lives, says Melodie, adding, “While the event itself is only for one night, it brings weeks and months of excitement as Abby and Jonathan anticipate that electric, extravagant night, so full of love and acceptance. From the limo rides, to the formal wear, all the way to the adoring clamoring fans along the red carpet route, Night to Shine truly makes my kids feel like celebrities. They laugh freely and dance with utter abandon.”
Melodie and countless others globally are grateful to the Tim Tebow Foundation and volunteers who make Night to Shine, as Melodie expresses, “magical.”
Michelle Hunt, special needs coordinator for Mount Horeb United Methodist Church in Lexington, can attest to the night’s enchantment. Her own daughter, Anna-Neal, 16, has attended for the past two years. Anna-Neal’s enthusiasm is what prompted Michelle to first volunteer and then eventually help oversee the local Night to Shine coordination effort.
Night to Shine is what many consider an unforgettable prom night experience; it is centered, according to the foundation’s official statement, on God’s love for people with special needs (physical or mental disabilities), ages 14 and older. “It is on the same night all over the world. It is always scheduled the Friday before Valentine’s Day,” Michelle says. “The Tim Tebow Foundation has started a movement to change Valentine’s Day from just a romantic holiday to a holiday that celebrates God’s love for people with special needs.”
Athlete Tim Tebow started his foundation because, as a teenager, he met a boy named Sherwin who, born with his feet backward, was considered a curse by the remote Philippine village in which Tim lived with his parents as missionaries. “When the people saw me hold Sherwin, they realized that the good news of Jesus Christ applies to everyone. It was then that my passion grew to help people,” Tim says, explaining why he started his foundation, which includes Night to Shine, in 2010.
This past year’s worldwide and local Night to Shine figures were impressive with 537 churches from around the world coming together on Feb. 9 to host approximately 90,000 “honored guests” through the support of 175,000 volunteers. Locally, Michelle says Night to Shine outgrew a former location, The Harvest of Lexington. Mount Horeb United Methodist Church hosted 2018’s Night to Shine and will again this year. Approximately 2,000 attended in 2018, including both special needs attendees as well as volunteers and family members.
The very first year of the global Night to Shine saw 44 churches in 26 states and two countries work together. The movement has grown exponentially every year since its launch in 2014.
A 92-page planning manual enables churches, no matter location, to maintain event consistency. Marley Chrisley, a volunteer since Night to Shine first came to the area in 2016 and a co-director for the past two years with Michelle, says the foundation is thorough in its requirement of an application process, a background check, and special training. Some general giveaway and decorative elements are provided by the Tim Tebow Foundation, such as Night to Shine drawstring backpacks for each honored guest and Night to Shine printed decorations for first-time church hosts. Plus, national, regional, and local media exposure and guidance is offered by the foundation as well as a video and conference call with Tim Tebow.
While Tim Tebow has not yet attended a Night to Shine in South Carolina, his parents, Pam and Bob, were involved at the 2017 area event held in Lexington. Michelle says that Tim makes it a point to visit several sites each year, but considering that Night to Shine occurs on the same evening worldwide, he is logistically unable to attend very many.
The first time Michelle’s daughter, Anna-Neal, attended a Night to Shine, she was hooked, but so was her mother. Anna-Neal, who lives with autism and has limited speech, experienced a red carpet complete with a warm welcome from a friendly crowd, paparazzi, a crown or tiara, hair and makeup (there is shoe shining for boys), limousine rides, corsages and boutonnieres, a karaoke room, a catered dinner, prom favors, and dancing. In essence, points out Michelle, her daughter and others get the royal treatment.
Other parents also express their enthusiasm for this joyous event. “Our son, Andrew, 18, has been to Night to Shine for three years,” says David Olshine. “He really enjoys the time to hang out, eat, dance, and participate.”
Glenda Rogers sings similar praises. “My 20-year-old daughter, Avery, who has autism, absolutely loves Night to Shine. She has attended for the past two years, and she is already looking forward to going again. It is an amazing time for her to dress up and have fun with her friends in an environment where she is comfortable, and she says it makes her feel like a princess.” Glenda said what is also special for her family is that Avery’s brother, 19-year-old Jared, is Avery’s escort for each Night to Shine.
Glenda is also impressed with the dedication of so many. “The volunteers are so kind, encouraging, and attentive, and they make Avery and all of the other attendees feel truly special. We are extremely thankful for Night to Shine!”
Michelle points out that many opportunities are available to get involved with Night to Shine, such as donating, volunteering, and attending. Much is donated so that honored guests attend at no charge.
Having a special needs teen or adult is not required of volunteers. “Many of our volunteers have some sort of connection with the special needs community,” says Michelle, “however, many step out of their comfort zone to volunteer for this amazing event. Tim Tebow and the Tim Tebow Foundation seem to have that effect on people.”
Marley stepped right into her comfort zone when she began volunteering with Night to Shine. She has gravitated toward individuals with special needs since she was school age. Having studied speech pathology in college, she works as a speech therapist in Lexington. Many of those she assists with speech issues attend Night to Shine. “I’ve grown to love them and their parents,” she says.
Marley says volunteers take their varied roles seriously. Training takes about three hours and addresses everything from bathroom etiquette and assistance to emergency preparedness to appropriate language/terms. “We make sure we know where everyone is and what they need,” she says, adding, “We’re called to be the hands and feet of Christ, which is scriptural. These are people from 14 years old to those in their 60s or 70s who just want a night to live it up on the dance floor and celebrate the fact that they are ‘fearfully and wonderfully made.’ They’re not worried about what they can’t do, how they talk, or how they walk. It’s a night to honor their beauty.”
Countless hours of preparation are required prior to the event to ensure all goes as planned. Each honored guest or attendee has a volunteer buddy for the evening whose main focus is to ensure that each guest has the best possible time. Volunteers also help in many other capacities, like the free prom dress shop, food service, floaters, photography, limo rides, mascots, decorations, registration, and the paparazzi that line the red carpet entrance, just to name a few.
The reward, agree many who volunteer, is in attendees’ smiles, laughter, and animation. “The benefits are endless for all of those who attend!” says Michelle.
Even parents and caregivers, if they do not take advantage of a night out themselves, congregate in a respite room at the church where they enjoy fellowship, a free meal, and a live video feed of attendees enjoying themselves.
This year’s Night to Shine takes place Feb. 8. The “Official 2018 Night to Shine Worldwide Highlight Video” visually captures the 2018 event.