The organizers of A Night to Shine, a special needs prom coming to Stillwater for the first time this year, want to give people with special needs an experience that makes them feel special. And they’re doing that with help from a small army of local volunteers and support from the Tim Tebow Foundation.
Tebow, the son of Christian missionaries who won a Heisman Trophy and went on to play first, professional football, and now, minor-league baseball, is also an inspirational speaker and author whose namesake faith-based foundation sponsors programs that focus on serving children and people with special needs, including those with physical and intellectual disabilities.
A Night to Shine is one of those programs that focuses on people with special needs.
Since it launched in 2015, A Night to Shine has grown from 44 host churches and 15,000 volunteers with more than 7,000 honored guests, who all get treated like kings and queens of the prom, to 537 host churches and 175,000 volunteers celebrating 90,000 honored guests at events across the world.
Stillwater hosted a similar home-grown event last year with support from United Way of Payne County, the Stillwater Community Center and the Stillwater Public Library, but this year, organizers decided to tap into the resources available through Tebow’s foundation, organizer Lori Weider said. They requested an event kit with supplies and received a grant that provides funding and technical support for organizations holding their first Night to Shine.
Organizer Robin Atkinson, a special education teacher with Stillwater Public Schools, said she had been watching other communities hold Night to Shine events and knew some people from Stillwater were traveling out of town to attend them. She didn’t see why Stillwater couldn’t hold its own prom.
“With all the resources we have in this town, it seemed like a perfect fit,” she said.
United Way offered the contacts it had utilized for its event the previous year, giving the organizers a base to build on.
A Night to Shine is open to people age 14 and over so honored guests from junior high and high school- age through adults can join in the fun.
Stillwater’s organizers reached out to organizations like MPower and Stillwater Group Homes that serve people with developmental disabilities, as well as to people in other nearby communities to make sure they were invited. As word spread, people from outside the immediate area began to register.
There is a group from Henrietta coming in for the event and three people from Ohio who just happened to be in town that night have registered, Atkinson said.
The organizers expect to have 150-200 honored guests when all registrations are in.
Weider says knowing A Night to Shine is a global event makes what is already a special evening feel even more special. Just knowing that at 7 p.m. on Feb. 8, there will be tens of thousands of people, some as far away as Africa, India and the Philippines, dancing and celebrating together is exciting.
A Night to Shine isn’t just about global connection; It’s also about building community and local connections.
A companion event called “parent’s prom” isn’t just a date night, it’s an opportunity for the parents of people with special needs to spend time with each other, enjoy fellowship and maybe even share resources and helpful information.
Weider says as the mother of two sons with autism, she knows it can be difficult to meet people who truly understand your struggles and triumphs.
The effort to bring Stillwater’s Night to Shine together involved two churches and numerous donors from all over the community providing a place to hold the event, as well as support, goods and services, Weider said. It also takes hundreds of volunteers to make an event like this a success.
The prom itself will be held at First United Methodist Church, 400 W. 7th Ave., and the “parents’ prom” with dinner provided by Texas Roadhouse will be held at First Presbyterian Church, 524 S. Duncan St. The prom will be live-streamed at the parents’ location so they can watch as they enjoy their own evening.
Each honored guest gets a crown or tiara, enters on a red carpet and is assigned a “buddy” for the evening to ensure they’re taken care of and have a great time, Weider said. The volunteers serving as buddies undergo a background check and are matched with honored guests based on their needs and the buddies’ abilities to provide care. It’s all designed to make sure that A Night to Shine is a fun experience for everyone and that parents know it will be a safe environment.
Tara Allsup is a Stillwater resident who works at Formal Fantasy where many of the honored guests have gone to rent tuxedoes or find gowns. She loves seeing their excitement and is touched by it personally because she has also been a volunteer buddy for the past three years at the Night to Shine event held in Putnam City.
Allsup says it’s always one of the greatest nights of her life because of the people involved and their joy.
“I get emotional just talking about it,” she said. “They’re so ecstatic … We’re playing the Cupid Shuffle and everyone is dancing and getting involved. The honored guests make it. Completely.”
The youth group from First United Methodist Church will be among those helping at this year’s event.
FUMC Youth Ministries Director Alton Carter says his No. 1 goal is to bring people together that night.
“We want them to understand that we love them, that they’re supported and that they’re part of our community,” he said. “It’s a great way for people to connect. It’s not just a night to shine, it’s something to remember.”
For more information about A Night to Shine or to register as an honored guest or a volunteer, go to nighttoshinestillwater.com.