by Marian Douglas | Local News Editor
On Feb. 10, The River Community Church's worship center turned into a dance floor. Balloons and paper snowflakes hung from the ceiling. Music pulsed through the room. Most importantly, the room was filled with people enjoying the night.
This was all part of Night to Shine, an annual event put on by the Tim Tebow Foundation at churches around the world. The foundation describes the event as "an unforgettable prom night experience, centered on God's love, for people with special needs ages 14 and older."
Every guest of the prom came dressed-up and was paired with a volunteer, known as a "buddy," upon arrival. Between 20-25 Taylor students participated as buddies at The River's Night to Shine.
"Being a buddy is just being there for the guests; being their friend," freshman Analiese Helms said. "You are their advocate for the night." She first heard about the event during her J-term course on diversity in the classroom. Several other students from the class also volunteered.
Helms was paired with a guest named Melissa who lives in a group home near Upland.
Helms said that Melissa was relatively inexpressive for most of the night. "But then there were moments when she would just smile this smile of pure joy."
One of those times occurred when "Uptown Funk"played. "Melissa just started singing at the top of her lungs, 'Saturday night, and we're in the spot!'" Helms said. "She was so excited."
Later that night, Helms and Melissa joined a conga line that wrapped around the entire worship center.
"I actually thought this was better than my prom," Helms said. "You could be yourself rather than feeling like you had to put up your walls. I think Night to Shine is about letting people be themselves."
Beyond dancing, every church involved provided several other accommodations for both fun and practical reasons. These included hair and makeup stations, shoeshine areas and limo rides as well as a meal that took into account various food allergies, a sensory room for overstimulated guests and a respite room for parents to relax.
The River also provided manicures and back massages in the respite room for the guests' guardians.
The night ended with a crowning ceremony. A video from Tim Tebow told the guests that they were made in love and that everyone was blessed to get a chance to love these guests. After the video, every guest was named prom king or queen.
"One girl came up to me and said 'I'm the queen! I'm the queen,' and I said 'Yes, you are a queen,'" administrative assistant at The River, Judy Plotner, said.
This was the first year The River took part in this event and the third year for the event in general.
Though the church was prepared to receive a few more than the 135 registered guests, they were shocked to welcome 171 guests in total. Around 250 volunteers helped to support Night to Shine at The River. Those who volunteered in other areas became buddies for the many walk-in guests.
The River Community Church first heard about the event in October, and when they first received the instructions for the event, they were overwhelmed.
"Usually you'd be doing this during the summer, so we had hit the ground running," Plotner said. The 60- to 75-page manual seemed daunting, but the church found it was full of great tips and insights and included an easy-to-follow structure for the event.
Despite their late start, The River considered Night to Shine a great success.
"It was much better than we thought it would be, and it's something we definitely want to do at The River," Plotner said. The River is already making a to-do list for next year's Night to Shine. Plotner said that at the top of that list in bold, capitalized letters is "WE ARE STARTING IN JUNE."