On Feb. 8, 2019, cameras flashed on red carpets across the country, as people walked through crowds of cheering fans. These were not celebrities, but people with special needs who were honored guests for an event called Night to Shine, a prom night experience for people with special needs. Night to Shine is a program of the Tim Tebow Foundation.
When Jordan Myer was in college, she volunteered at this event regularly. When she moved back to Jackson after college, she approached her pastor, Rev. Eric Longman, about applying to host the event. He quickly agreed. Once approved as an event site, St. Paul Lutheran Church received logistical support and guidance from the foundation. Jordan, who works with people with special needs, chaired the committee and communicated its heart to everyone.
“This event is a prom night centered on Christ’s love,” Rev. Longman explains. “It’s about showing people with special needs that we’re all made in God’s image and loved by God.” Judy and Richard Aufdenberg agree. Their son, Matt, has Down Syndrome and sported a cowboy hat and tuxedo as he danced with his best friend Scotty, and made new friends from across the region.
When he learned they’d been selected to host, Rev. Longman wasn’t certain how they were going to attract enough guests. The goal set by the Tim Tebow Foundation is 75 guests, which felt quite daunting. In the end, 115 guests showed up (and rocked out). A reporter from the local paper spotted one of the Facebook posts about the event and conducted an interview.
Community and Media Partnerships Critical to Success
The news interview did wonders for recruiting volunteers. Despite Rev. Longman’s initial concerns guest registrations started to come in. The team had been recruiting with the help of service organizations across the region. For every guest, there’s a background-checked buddy, who shows them around the event and makes sure they can participate in the activities. In the end, it took 220 volunteers to pull off the event.
To put together such a phenomenal event, which included limo rides, pony rides, karaoke and more, St. Paul relied on the greater community. Approximately two thirds of the volunteers came from outside the congregation. In addition, at one point, a community member from outside the congregation wrote a $1,000 check to help make the event as special as possible.
As the night unfolded, joy radiated from every face, volunteers and guests alike. Rev. Longman saw a young man named Roger and asked him how the night was going for him. Roger said, “It’s okay, but they haven’t played my song yet.” Rev. Longman asked him, “What’s your song?” “Cha Cha Slide,” Roger replied. Rev. Longman assured him, “I know that song is on the playlist. I promise you they’ll play it.” Twenty minutes later, he saw Roger on the dance floor, grinning from ear-to-ear. Rev. Longman said, “They played your song, didn’t they?” Roger said, “Yeah they did!”
Including Parents and Guardians
Meanwhile, throughout the festivities, the parents and guardians enjoyed a night of their own in the basement, where the event was livestreamed. The committee brought in massage chairs and served them dinner and dessert as they shared in their children’s joy and compared notes about their experiences.
With clear emotion in his voice, Richard describes what this event has meant to their family. He says, “These kids and these adults, they always seem to be pushed to the back, but this night was their night. People were cheering and hooping and hollering for them as they came down the red carpet and the guests were just beaming…He’s had some extra issues, but Matt’s brought so much joy and love to us and the congregation. He’s a greeter and he’ll walk right up to strangers and say ‘Hi, I’m Matt.’ It was just great to see everyone come together for this.”
Matt couldn’t decide what his favorite part of the event was, but he spent a lot of time on the dance floor and the karaoke room. He’s especially adept at break dancing. Eventually, everyone was crowned Prom King and Queen (Matt gave his hat to a friend for safe keeping at this point).
Night to Shine Lights Up Across Missouri District
A few other Missouri LCMS ministries hosted Night to Shine. Stephanie Silbey, who worked on the event for Messiah Lutheran Church in Weldon Spring, fielded calls on a daily basis from interested volunteers. In the end, they worked with over 300 volunteers to host the event for 134 guests. Many volunteers want to participate in the event again next year.
Concordia Lutheran Church in Kirkwood had a similar experience. Like other organizers, Jessica Crawford initially found the number of required volunteers daunting. However, enthusiasm for the event overtook such doubts. She explains, “The Special Needs Ministry at Concordia has been serving children, youth and adults with special needs for over two years now. Hosting Night to Shine seemed like the perfect opportunity to not only celebrate the individuals we are currently servings but also as a way to reach further into the community to let them know not only that God loves them, but that Concordia has a place for them.”
Lauren Ashley Photography
“These kids and these adults, they always seem to be pushed to the back, but this night was their night. People were cheering and hooping and hollering for them as they came down the red carpet and the guests were just beaming…He’s had some extra issues, but Matt’s brought so much joy and love to us and the congregation. He’s a greeter and he’ll walk right up to strangers and say ‘Hi, I’m Matt.’ It was just great to see everyone come together for this.” —Richard Aufdenberg, father of Matt (pictured above and below)