Fourteen years ago I attended my senior prom and not surprisingly, I thought that would be the last time I did. But I was wrong. For the past two years I’ve attended “prom” again, but this time in a baseball stadium instead of a formal dining hall and instead of a date, I was the “buddy” of a sweet 21-year-old woman named Kellie Hope. This was Night to Shine.
Night to Shine is an annual prom started by the Tim Tebow Foundation for people with special needs. For one night each year hundreds of churches from 50 states and 11 countries simultaneously celebrate these young adults and give them a night they won’t forget. For the second year in a row my church, Waterfront Church in SE Washington, had the privilege of hosting the prom at the National’s Baseball stadium.
When I first met Kellie Friday night she lit up when she was told I would be her buddy, immediately grabbed my hand, and told me she loved me – the first of many “I love yous” I’d receive that night.
As her “buddy” my job was to make sure she ate as much Chick-fil-A as possible, walk down a red carpet with cheering paparazzi, stop at every photo booth, get our faces painted with matching blue hearts, have a professional make-up artist do her eyeshadow, dance, and of course – feel like a queen for the night.
Part of the Tim Tebow Foundation’s goal each year is host an “unforgettable prom night experience” by celebrating people with special needs centered on God’s love and making them feel like the kings and queens they were meant to be.
But while I was supposed to be the one giving, I ended up walking away from the night with so much more.
Before helping out with Night to Shine I confess I felt uncomfortable around people with special needs. That’s because I was looking at only the disability and not the person. Working at Night to Shine has opened my eyes to seeing all people differently.
One thing our pastor and his wife kept sharing with us during our weekly meetings was that we should never refer to the participants by their disability first. No one is in a wheelchair first, and a person second. Or has down-syndrome first and a human after. Instead of focusing on the disability we were refer to them as “people with special needs.”
They were people first – with their own interests, personalities and activities. Their disability was just one part of them and certainly not a defining aspect. I had never heard it put like that and honestly, would have continued in my naivety unless it had been pointed out. These are children, cousins, girls, boys, daughters, sons and friends first and foremost. Each person has something to contribute to our lives and communities and I was so grateful for having met many of these wonderful students and young adults.
Second, I learned that we really should dance like no one is watching.
I loved how almost every participant had no inhibitions on the dance floor, unlike me who is very self-conscious about everything, let alone dancing. One of my favorite moments was watching a young woman have a dance-off with Abe Lincoln from the National’s Presidential mascots. To truly enjoy a moment you sometimes have to completely let go and live in it.
Thirdly, I learned to appreciate the small things. When we first walked into the prom room, Kellie was given a corsage for her wrist and you would have thought she won the lottery. She proudly wore it all night and kept showing me over and over again saying, “It’s like from a wedding!”
Too often I take even the big things in my life for granted, let alone stop to appreciate the small things. Every new thing we got to experience last night Kellie lit up and would talk about later in the night.
At one point we stopped at a fun photo booth where the pictures print out immediately. Kellie picked out matching masks for us to wear and would proudly show our “matching photo” to every person she met. I will keep my photo to remember that night and I hope Kellie will too.
You see, a funny thing happens when you believe you are “doing a good deed” for someone else. In the end, you find that they were the ones to give you a new perspective on life. By the end of the night there were no participants with special needs. Just one big party celebrating a group of amazing people.
Keep Shining, Kellie and all the participants at this year’s Night to Shine.