By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
MOLINE, Ill. — Guests with special needs danced the night away with their buddies; among them, a father carrying his petite 26-year-old daughter in his arms and moving to the music’s beat so she could dance, too.
Shelby uses a wheel chair for mobility, except on the dance floor of Night to Shine where she settled comfortably in her father Dan Johnson’s arms. “She loves music and she loves to dance,” he said. Night to Shine, a prom experience for people with physical or cognitive special needs, is an “amazing, super event.”
The Tim Tebow Foundation sponsors church-hosted Night to Shine events nationwide and in other countries to celebrate people with special needs. Sports celebrity Tim Tebow, a newlywed, took his wife to Night to Shine in Rome this year. His foundation serves to “bring Faith, Hope and Love to those needing a brighter day in their darkest hour of need.”
For one shining night, Feb. 7, everyone inside the TaxSlayer Center in Moline became family, related or not. Erica Heiselman, a junior at Pleasant Valley High School in Bettendorf, posed for photos with her big brother Garrett in the TaxSlayer’s arena, transformed into a dining and dance hall for Night to Shine.
“I think it’s a really great bonding experience for Garrett and me,” said Erica, her brother’s buddy. “It’s a very special place for a lot of special people to have a very special night.” She and her family belong to Our Lady of the River Parish in LeClaire, which co-hosted the event with Risen Christ Lutheran Church in Davenport.
“Working with Risen Christ Lutheran Church has been a huge blessing for this event,” said Jennifer Hildebrand of Our Lady of the River. “We individually bring our own gifts and talents to the table and together work like a well-oiled machine.” The two churches joined efforts last year, after each one previously hosted separate Night to Shine events.
This year, their collaboration drew 490 guests from communities throughout eastern Iowa and western Illinois and points beyond. “We had one guest from Chesterton, Indiana,” said Sandy Sievert of Risen Christ Lutheran. That guest’s brother, a student at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, “wanted him to come and was his buddy.”
Nearly 700 volunteers served a variety of roles at Night to Shine, most of them as buddies. A couple who volunteer from Sandy’s church have become friends with a couple with special needs. “They forged a friendship in the first year and stayed in touch,” Sandy said.
Dee Neff of Riverdale stood happily in line at the “candy bar” with Amanda Hill, a guest from Muscatine. “We have been buddies for two years in a row,” said Dee, with a warm smile. “We’ve stayed in touch.” Summing up Night to Shine, Dee said, “You have to be here to feel the love.” Amanda proved the point. “I like my buddy,” she said, resting her head on Dee’s shoulder.
Thomas Kazanecki, a student and basketball player at St. Ambrose University, stood in the candy line with guest Dan Hannah. “I like to come every year and have fun,” said Dan, who wore a dress shirt and necktie as did Thomas. “It’s a cool experience to come out here and see so many happy faces,” Thomas said, adding that Men’s Basketball Coach Ray Shovlain sees Night to Shine as a good event for his players to participate in.
Chris McCormick Pries and Nicole Goeller of Vera French Community Mental Health Center in Davenport signed up to be buddies for the first time this year and loved the experience. Nicole said she told Chris, “we’re doing it again next year.” “Everybody is so joyful and excited and they are all on their best behavior!” Chris said.
Miss Clinton County, Alysa Goethe, and Miss Corridor, Madison Auge, were among the pageant queens who greeted guests at the end of the red carpet. Alysa, a 20-year-old college student from Bettendorf, couldn’t wait to crown guests as kings and queens. Madison, 24, who works in the organ transplant center at University of Iowa Hospitals, previously served as a buddy at Night to Shine and returned as a pageant queen. “Just looking into their eyes and telling them they are beautiful or handsome” makes an impression on her. “They are kings or queens in God’s kingdom.”
Other volunteers had duties ranging from coat check, volunteer registration and sensory room supervision to styling hair, applying makeup, shining shoes and driving a limousine. Coat check volunteer Angela Dearking of Bettendorf was glad the guests could “come out on this night and have fun. It’s such a special night for them.”
Pastor Brian Licht of Risen Christ Lutheran Church and Father Joseph Wolf of Our Lady of the River Parish took to the stage for the blessing of the gathering. Emcee Mike Mickle followed with an announcement of Tim Tebow’s video appearance. The crowd cheered with delight. Afterwards, the pageant queens took their places on the dance floor for the crowning moment.
Alysa looked into the eyes of each of the guests she crowned and posed for photos. One of the guests, Queen Kelsey, seated in a wheelchair, beamed as she and Alysa held hands and danced in place.