By Dylan Roche
Imagine stepping out of a limousine onto a red carpet to the sound of a cheering, applauding crowd. You enter a dance hall where there are decorations, music, food and other luxuries just for you and a hundred other guests who, like you, have spent much of their lives on the fringes.
That’s a major part of what makes Night to Shine so special. The worldwide prom-style event for young people with special needs, which took place this year on Friday, February 8, cultivates an atmosphere of support, love and celebration. For Heather Ferguson, a Pasadena mother whose two sons with disabilities attended this year’s Anne Arundel County event, it’s a shining example of the support that families like hers have in the community. “When you go into places in the community with disabled children, you’re different; this particular event is designed for children like them and it gives them a sense of belonging,” she said.
FAITH in Glen Burnie was one of 10 churches in Maryland and the only one in Anne Arundel County to participate in Night to Shine, which is sponsored by the Tim Tebow Foundation. More than 100 guests — some of whom came from as far as Pennsylvania and Virginia — were treated by more than 250 volunteers to an evening out with photo shoots, limo rides, a red-carpet arrival and dancing.
Deanna Lechowicz, who has been the volunteer chairperson of the event for two years, sees FAITH’s participation as a Night to Shine host church as a way to provide families a home where they can be loved year-round. “I’ve grown up with special-needs people in my life,” she said. “It’s near and dear to my heart, and this is an awesome ministry. I want them to feel special, and I want to see the excitement on their faces. It makes my heart so overjoyed.”
Geared toward young people ages 14 and older, the event matches each guest with a volunteer buddy who escorts him or her throughout the evening. When they arrive, guests receive a corsage or boutonniere, then girls are treated to hair and makeup pampering while boys get their shoes shined. Afterward, they have a photo shoot against a formal backdrop before climbing into a limousine for a short ride. When they return to the church, they are dropped off on a red carpet, where a crowd of “paparazzi” cheers for their arrival. They enter the church’s family life center to spend the rest of the night enjoying music, dancing, food and much more. The night concludes with each of the guests crowned a king or queen of the prom.
“It’s a way to let them know that they’re worthy, they’re special, that God made them this way,” Lechowicz said. “You see so many people with big smiles on their faces. They don’t feel like outsiders.”
Ferguson watched her older son, Drake, and younger son, Caleb, leave the event feeling “loved, valued, and having a place in the community.” She praised the volunteers for their attention to detail in the way they made each guests feel special. “Every guest is addressed by name and welcomed by name,” she noted.
She explained that Caleb, who has autism, loves dancing, but children with autism have problems with sensory processing. “Loud noises and loud music affect them in a negative way,” she said. “This was a time for him to dance and dance among people like him.” Drake, she continued, is more physically restricted, but the prom night was still a blast. “He enjoys the light and the excitement and the care he’s receiving from other people,” she said.
The evening was also rewarding for her as a parent. “For a parent, to be able to see my children in the community where we go to school, where we worship, we actually feel like we’re a part of it — it’s incredible,” she said.
February 8 marked the fifth year that Night to Shine has been held worldwide and the third year FAITH has participated. This year, more than 600 churches treated approximately 100,000 guests. Lechowicz expects that it will continue to grow in the Anne Arundel County community, and Ferguson plans for her family to continue to be part of it.
“It’s an amazing event,” Ferguson said. “There’s nothing else of this magnitude for these types of children.”