By Shannon Baker and Sharon Mager
As the beautiful girl in the sparkling sequined red dress walked down the red carpet and into Smithsburg Valley Church, she was greeted with heart-felt cheers and the twinkling of camera flashes. Escorted down the aisle by her brother David, her eyes sparkled and her mouth widened as more of the glistening decorations and the other delightfully dressed guests came into her view. She soon met her mother face-to-face and melted into her arms, both filled with wonder and excitement.
Just days before, the parents of Alannah Blanchard shared some of the challenges they face in raising their 16-year-old daughter, who navigates life through microcephaly (“small brain”) and cerebral palsy. In other words, says Lorna Blanchard, she presents like someone who has had a stroke while in the womb.
Blanchard described how she and her husband, Wayne, have to feed Alannah, carefully watching her every bite. Sometimes, Alannah simply forgets to swallow. Since Alannah doesn’t speak, her parents communicate with her through pointing and simple signing. They also watch her emotional responses to determine her needs.
And on this night, Alannah’s emotions were in plain view. She obviously was mesmerized and excited. Her face was shining.
Simply put, it was her “Night to Shine.”
Aptly named, “Night to Shine” is an unforgettable prom night experience, centered on God’s love, for people with special needs ages 14 and older. Now in its third year, the prom was founded by former NFL quarterback Tim Tebow and the Tim Tebow Foundation.
This year, on February 10, 375 churches, from all 50 states and 11 countries, simultaneously hosted “Night to Shine” events for 75,000 honored guests through the support of 150,000 volunteers.
Included were three churches within the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware: Smithsburg Valley Church in Smithsburg, Md., Cresthill Baptist Church in Bowie, Md., and Faith Baptist Church in Glen Burnie, Md.
Throughout the night, honored guests enjoyed catered dinners, dancing in decorated spaces, rides in stretch limos, red carpet “paparazzi” experiences and so much more.
At Smithsburg Valley Church, 14 artists from the Temple, a Paul Mitchell partner cosmetology school in Frederick, and Poetically Brushed Hair & Makeup in Hagerstown, treated guests and their caretakers to salon experiences, shining their shoes and preparing their hair and make-up. Local florists provided the boutonnieres and corsages.
Also, several of the women received free glamorous gowns, fitted specifically for them, courtesy of Dressed in Love ministries.
Jennifer Williams, who started the non-profit to help teens have access to prom dresses, learned about Smithsburg’s “Night to Shine” outreach at last year’s ministry wives retreat, sponsored by the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware.
A few weeks before the prom, Williams, wife of Ashton Baptist Church Youth Pastor David Williams, hosted a dress boutique, showcasing donated gowns and jewelry for the guests. Seamstresses in the church measured each dress on the participants and altered them accordingly.
Williams, a public relations specialist for the Maryland Fire & Rescue Institute, also served as a “buddy,” dedicating her time to hang out with honored guest Amanda Buhagair. She helped Amanda navigate through the night, all the while finding herself encouraged by the time spent with her.
“She’s so amazing. I had met her at the dress event, and we became instant friends, and we’ve been able to be buddies tonight,” said Williams. “We’ve danced all night and had so much fun.”
What was Amanda’s favorite part of the night?
“Love,” she said simply.
Blanchard shared she, too, witnessed the love as each volunteer served.
“The whole church body was absolutely amazing. They took care of every detail to ensure every honored guest felt wanted and welcomed,” said Blanchard.
“Were they getting too warm on the dance floor? It was time to get some water. Feeling overwhelmed by the loud noises? They took their guests to the quiet sensory room,” she explained, marveling at how prepared Smithsburg Valley Church was for this event.
Blanchard had attended the pre-event training at Smithsburg Valley Church, where Tom Stolle, chief financial officer and chief operating officer for the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware, shared what to do and not do when interacting with families affected by disabilities.
“Tom did a most excellent job in sharing,” Blanchard said. “I sat back choking back tears just hearing from another parent who really knows and understands. I really think he deserves a shout-out for that.”
The Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware also helped support the night through a church strengthening grant.
“We were pleased to partner financially to support this event, but this is about so much more than that,” Stolle said. “It was an honor to love on, celebrate with, and serve so many special honored guests, parents, and caregivers.”
Stolle added, “It was about being the hands and feet of Jesus. These individuals and families affected by disabilities endure so much. It was so awesome that they were able to experience a night like this. And you know what? It was totally fun, too! The event rocked!”
“For me, it turned out just as planned,” said Angela Griffin, Smithsburg’s event director.
Still glowing after the event, Griffin said she especially was thrilled to see caregivers respond when they saw the church’s Sunday school rooms transformed into three lounges, a spa room, a movie room and a game room just for them. These spaces gave the caregivers a time to relax while the buddies cared for their guests.
“A lot of caregivers were brought to tears,” Griffin said. “They did not know they would be cared for, too.”
She related how they kept saying, “We’re just caregivers!” to which the volunteers responded, “Oh no! You are so much more!”
The climax of the night was when each honored guest was crowned as king or queen for the evening. Bearing their crowns, guests joyfully danced and celebrated.
A friend invited Andrea Hurdado, of Germantown, to bring her son to the special night. “It’s been very good,” she said, speaking for Jacob, 15, who most loved the dancing. Her favorite part was “seeing so much joy everywhere.” Everyone is so nice, she stressed.
“Just know that this event could not have happened without God,” Griffin agreed, also expressing thanks to the nearly 200 volunteers, from Smithsburg, nearby Ringgold Church and the community, who served the nearly 100 honored guests.
In his prayer, Smithsburg’s Pastor Allen Youngbar thanked God for Jesus’ death and resurrection, adding, “God, You truly are smiling. You say, “‘When we do it for the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you’ve done it for Me.’”
He urged, “Give these folks a night they will never forget, and hopefully, they will never forget You, God.”
Members also went all out at Cresthill Baptist Church’s “Night to Shine.” Senior Pastor Jimmy Painter was ecstatic.
“We’ve been here for 23 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said. Painter said almost the entire church as well as many community groups were involved. People were eager to help.
The entire church looked like it was magically transformed. Colorful party lights swirled outside of the building as the limousines pulled up to the front, and the guests were ushered to the red-carpet walkway lined with “paparazzi,” and greeters who escorted their guests to various stations where they were pampered and treated like royalty. They could visit the “photo booth,” where they had an assortment of props and could pose with or without a frame, or they could sing Karaoke.
After a buffet dinner, guests went to the sanctuary decorated as a ballroom where they danced the evening away. Among the guests was Junior Miss Wheechair Maryland 2014 Dominique Ingram.
Not too far north of Cresthill Church, guests also attended the “Night to Shine” at Faith Baptist Church, Glen Burnie. There, organizers started out with about a dozen preregistered participants but as word got out, the number rose quickly—from a dozen to 60 in about a week’s time.
Members of Abundant Life Church a few blocks away partnered with Faith Baptist, providing volunteers.
In addition to the limo rides, guests played bottle bowling and other games in the hallways.
Members served food in the fellowship hall, and they danced through the evening. The finale was the crowning ceremony as Senior Pastor Tim Byer called each guest by name and crowned them individually, telling him or her that they were princes and princesses for the evening. Their smiles were huge as they left with their buddies.
Learn more about the “Night to Shine” at www.timtebowfoundation.org. For assistance in growing a special needs ministry, please contact Tom Stolle at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos by Shannon Baker, Sharon Mager and One of a Kind Moments Photography.