By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
DAVENPORT — Matt Schramm, dressed in black tux and bow tie and wearing a king’s crown, danced with exuberance at Night to Shine, a prom for persons with special needs. The expression of pure joy on his face matched that of other prom-goers dancing the night away Feb. 9 at Rhythm City Casino Resort.
They were among 90,000 guests worldwide who relished Night to Shine, a prom experience dreamed up by Tim Tebow, a former NFL quarterback-turned professional baseball player. He aims to transform the Friday before Valentine’s Day into a declaration of God’s love, especially for persons with special needs.
More than 540 churches around the world hosted Night to Shine proms at various venues on Feb. 9. In Iowa, Our Lady of the River (OLOR) Parish in LeClaire hosted the event at Rhythm City Casino. Risen Christ Lutheran Church in Davenport hosted its event at Trinity Lutheran Church and School in Davenport. The two congregations, in their second year hosting Night to Shine, collaborated to create a memorable experience for their guests.
“Each guest was given their special moment, announced by name and welcomed by the volunteer paparazzi lined up behind the stanchions on either side of the red carpet, said Jennifer Hildebrand, lead organizer of Night to Shine at the casino. A battalion of volunteers, around 475 from different parishes and churches, helped bring the prom to fruition at the casino. Some 325 guests attended.
Cynthia and Jim Naber of Muscatine gushed with gratitude for their son Matt Schramm’s memorable experience. “Matt had an awesome buddy (Paula Maddox) and I know he would have been fine without us being there but it gave me the opportunity to pop over and get some videos while he was on the dance floor. What a hoot!” Cynthia posted on Facebook.
“Matt danced the night away and all the volunteers on the dance floor made it even more fun…. From the corsages to the red carpet introduction, from the candy table to the dinner, limousine ride and dance, Matthew’s night was one that we will cherish,” Cynthia said. “Our family is grateful and we look forward to Matthew attending again next year.”
Tim Elskamp of St. Ann Parish in Long Grove attended last year’s Night to Shine hosted by OLOR and was the first person to register for this year’s event. He also was the first person to walk the red carpet. His buddy, Christine, a student at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, enjoyed the experience so much last year that she proposed in person this year to be his buddy again. “He was so excited! He said, ‘Yes, I go. I go,’” said Rhonda Elskamp, Tim’s stepmother. She and her husband Dan, Tim’s dad, volunteered at this year’s prom. When Tim saw Christine arrive at the casino, “he went running to her. They just hugged. He was in heaven. He loved every bit of it,” Rhonda said. When the evening ended, she noticed Tim sitting in a chair with his leg propped up. His said his leg was tired from all that dancing!
Volunteers who hadn’t been exposed to people with special needs got to witness at the prom “what their capabilities are and how much fun they can be,” Rhonda added. “They give you more than you can ever give back…. They want to be like everybody else. They want to have the opportunities everyone else has.”
Father Nicholas Akindele, who works in the Diocese of Davenport’s Tribunal, is grateful he accepted Jennifer’s invitation to volunteer at Night to Shine. He also expressed gratitude to Tim Tebow for putting the resources together to create a prom event for guests who don’t have the resources to reciprocate. “That’s what Jesus asked us to do.”
But the priest from Nigeria received a gift in return: “The joy was unforced; the joy was natural; it was electric. For me, it was a night to remember.” During his opening prayer at the prom, he told the gathering, “I am seeing the Gospel of Life here.”
Persons with special needs are on the margins of society, on the peripheries. “These are the people we need to reach out to, who cannot repay our kindness,” Fr. Nicholas said. “I think Pope Francis would have been so happy; he wants us to go out and to reach out.”