Last updated on Apr 17, 2019
By Jada Butler
Over 30 student-athletes volunteered for the “A Night to Shine” prom for individuals with special needs on Long Island on Friday, Feb. 8.
The event, sponsored by the Tim Tebow Foundation, was hosted by Church Unleashed at its Commack campus. This year marked the fifth anniversary of the event; 655 churches from around the world came together to host the prom on the same night. This is the first year the event was hosted by Church Unleashed.
Ninety two “honorary guests” attended the event with their families and caretakers. There were 220 volunteers, 34 from Post. The volunteers were split into “administrators,” who served snacks, and “buddies,” who were paired with a guest and were their date for the night. Buddies did everything with their guest from dancing, talking, and relaxing in the respite, or relief, rooms.
Lea Brady, a junior healthcare administration major, is a member of Church Unleashed and was one of the 34 Post student volunteers. Brady said her church had applied to host the event three years prior, and this was the first time they were approved. “It is a very special one night of the year,” she said.
After the event, volunteers and families messaged Brady saying how impressed they were with the set up and shared their excitement for the years to come.
Bency Ortiz, executive assistant to the lead pastors Todd and Mary Bishop at Church Unleashed, was in charge of coordinating the event and community outreach for donations. “I found a lot of the organizations [in Commack] wanted to be a part of this because it’s never happened before in the community. Everything from food to desserts, entertainment and special guests were all donated,” she said.
A lot went into preparing for the night, according to Ortiz. Leading up to the event, the church held a boutique dress and tuxedo drive. All of the dress attire was donated, including several brand-new dresses. Guests who already registered could come and pick out a free outfit to wear to the prom.
A pre-prom event featured volunteers doing hair and makeup for the women and shoe shining for the men, and a respite room where guests were pampered and given massages. At the prom, the guests and their buddies could take a limo ride around the block and enter
the space on a red carpet through a balloon archway. Ortiz wanted it to be magical. “We wanted to love on our guests, love on our volunteers and let them know they are special and unique,” she said.
Ortiz said it is difficult for some families to attend services and events for special needs children because they don’t want to disrupt the programs. That’s why they created the “Champions Club” space in their church. The Champions Club features a sensory room, motor skills room, and discovery room for individuals with special needs to go and relax. “We made the rooms available for our guests [at the prom] to have a chance to relieve themselves from the noise, or if they needed to calm down,” Ortiz said.
Ortiz said they wanted the night to be fun and enjoyable for everyone from the guests to the buddies and the parents. Volunteers over 18-years-old, and all of the “buddies” had to undergo background screenings and attend training prior to the prom; the goal was for the buddies to be able to cater to their guests’ needs and to be prepared for any situation. “We wanted the parents to sit back and relax, since it’s a 24 hour job for them,” she said.
Elise Strange, a senior psychology major, was a buddy that night. She was with her buddy all night, doing whatever he wanted to do. “My buddy loved eating; he was eating everything,” she said. Later in the night, she accompanied her buddy to one of the separate rooms to relax. “People with more sensory issues could go to another room for pet therapy, a coloring center and just a quiet space. It was amazing with all the different options they had,” she said.
The highlight of the night was the crowning ceremony. Each of the 86 guests was called up one by one to a stage and sat on throne-like seats while being crowned king or queen of the night by two Disney princesses, Ariel and Moana. “The smiles on their faces and the emotions they showed” made the night, Ortiz said. This event is the first time many of these guests ever experienced a prom, and the volunteers and members of the church wanted them to feel special.
Ortiz received much feedback from parents and volunteers that the event was “tremendously live changing for them.” During the prom she approached a mother who was very emotional. “I asked her if she was okay and she said, ‘I’ve never seen my daughter so happy.’ It was really nice to see,” Ortiz said.
“We are really grateful for all our volunteers,” Ortiz said. “The event could not have happened, first and foremost without the grace of God, and second without our volunteers.”