By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
BETTENDORF — More than 250 guests with special needs crossed the red carpet to the cheers of their adoring fans and to the flashing lights of the paparazzi inside the Quad-Cities Waterfront Convention Center. It was their “Night to Shine” prom, and they savored every minute of it.
Three-hundred volunteers — many of them dressed in formal wear — enthusiastically waited on their guests, who appreciated being treated for one night of their lives as celebrities at the Feb. 10 prom. Whatever struggles the guests deal with daily — autism, Down syndrome, learning disability, emotional, mental or physical disability — were gently lifted from their shoulders for three hours that night.
This prelude to Valentine’s Day was the inspiration of the Tim Tebow Foundation, which sponsored “Night to Shine” proms held simultaneously at 375 locations in 50 states and 11 countries. Our Lady of the River Parish in LeClaire was selected to host a prom after its Health Ministry Cabinet submitted an application. Jennifer Hildebrand, who leads the Health Ministry Cabinet, figured she’d need a much larger venue than the parish’s gathering space to hold the special event and felt blessed to secure the Quad-Cities Waterfront Convention Center. Four other “Night to Shine” proms were held in Iowa, including one in Davenport.
While the Tim Tebow Foundation provided a generous grant, “we were overwhelmed by donations from the Quad-City community, businesses and individuals who came together to make this happen,” Hildebrand said.
She followed a 67-page manual provided by the Tim Tebow Foundation to ensure a successful and enjoyable evening. In a few short years “Night to Shine” has become a worldwide movement striving to make Valentine’s Day a celebration of God’s love for people with special needs and a celebration of the value of life. “It’s a night not only for our guests to shine, but for churches to shine, for volunteers to shine and most importantly, for Christ to shine,” the manual notes.
A visit to the ballroom, hair and makeup station, shoe shine station, karaoke station and curbside at the limousine pickup revealed plenty of shining faces. “How did you like the ride?” volunteer Alex Hayungs, 16, asked guests as they got out of the limo. He got his answer in smiles. Brian Dugan, one of the volunteer limo drivers, said: “They enjoyed the heck out of it.”
Jamie Drobsuchevich, a guest, wore a radiant smile on her face as she danced with her date, Tyler “T.J.” Martin. She said of the prom, “I like it so much!” Linda Hartzell loved the ride in her wheelchair across the red carpet. “It was so pretty,” she said, clasping her hands in delight.
After Father Joe Wolf, pastor of Our Lady of the River Parish, gave a blessing, guests dined on chicken, sandwiches, veggies, fruits and cookies. They also helped themselves to a candy “bar.” On the dance floor, guests and volunteers performed the “Electric Slide” as the DJ instructed “one, two, forward, back!” The crowd went wild when DJs played “Who Let The Dogs Out.”
“It’s so much fun; it’s so cool!” exclaimed guest Francine Pace, 15. As a young woman with autism, she struggles at times to fit in. But at the prom, she was “happy to be hanging out with all my friends!”
Guests and volunteers alike enjoyed the prom. Volunteer Jim Schmertmann, who described his duties as meeting and greeting guests, said: “They’re excited to be here. This is an exciting event. I’m excited to be here!”
“I think this is awesome. Everyone seems so happy and they’re having a good time,” said volunteer Bobbi Goetsch. She spent the earlier part of the day making corsages and boutonnieres with her mother, Cheryl Albee, and several other women.
Some guests needed a break from the stimulating music, lights and chatter and found refuge in the sensory room overseen by occupational therapist Bonnie Bobet-Beyhl. “We had a steady flow. I’m glad we had it,” she said.
Emcee Mike Mickle introduced the night’s events and a brief video clip of Tim Tebow, who delivered an affirming message to the guests about their worth and God’s love for them. “This is unbelievable,” Mickle said, when asked how the prom was going. “I’ve never seen so many smiling faces in one room. It really is their night to shine and you can really see that.”
Michelle Bibens, who worked closely with Hildebrand and others to organize “Night to Shine,” finally had a moment to watch the guests enjoying their night and said, “It was very emotional for me.”
The crowning of 250-plus kings and queens was a highlight for everyone. As she placed a tiara on a guest’s head, Julia Campbell, Miss Iowa’s Outstanding Teen, gave a warm smile and hug. “It’s so cool to be a part of this. It’s not just special for the guests. It was special for everyone.”