As the crowd cheers over the blaring music, the guests of honor promptly walk out of their limousines with their companions to the red carpet. The kings and queens make a triumphant entrance by dancing and saluting the crowd with joy. Sophisticated attires and elaborate hairstyles dominate the ceremony. The kings and queens are ready to shine.
Night to Shine, a prom-night-like event that occurs around the world, is a movement sponsored by the Tim Tebow Foundation to celebrate people with special needs, ages 14 and older. Tim Tebow, former American football player known for his faith, decided to start the ministry after he noticed the stigma that surrounds people with special needs, according to the official Tebow Foundation website. As of this year, Night to Shine happens in all 50 states and 34 countries around the world. Siloam Springs held its first Night to Shine event Friday, Feb. 7 at Community Christian Fellowship (CCF).
Joe Walenciak, dean of business development and strategic partnerships at John Brown University, said that Night to Shine aims to bless young people with special needs. “People with special needs oftentimes are not included, and there is a belief that they are not able to do some things,” Walenciak said. “Night to Shine focuses on celebrating them, and, from my experience, that elevates their self-esteem and blesses them.” After six consecutive years, the awareness of the ministry from churches and organizations around the world has increased with 721 churches and 215,000 volunteers joining to celebrate people with special needs as of 2019.
Walenciak, who serves at CCF, shared how the church began talking to the Tebow foundation over a year ago to plan for Siloam Springs’ own Night to Shine. Through CCF’s partnership with Ability Tree, a local non-profit organization that supports individuals and families impacted by disabilities, and 13 other local churches, Night to Shine successfully took place with the collaboration of the community. “I think that this is God putting it in people’s heart to not give up on good ideas and serve others,” Walenciak said.
Other JBU students, faculty and staff members were also part of this important event. Genesis Ramirez, junior international business major from Costa Rica, explained her motivation behind volunteering for Night to Shine. “When I signed up to volunteer, I did not have a lot of context about the event,” she said. “It wasn’t until I started reading more about it online that I understood the magnitude of such event, and I think it is a great opportunity to interact with the community.”
Ramirez volunteered to be a companion for a guest of honor. Through her role, she said she was able to dance and engage in conversation with the person. “I have zero experience interacting with people with special needs, and sometimes it has been an awkward experience because I overthink every action and word,” Ramirez explained. “Being a part of this motivated me to break all stereotypes and barriers that prevented me from interacting with them.”
Walenciak further explained the logistics behind an event that was held for the first time. “The foundation has a lot of resources, and they tell us what we need,” he said. “The churches worked together, and it is a great feeling because it is a small town and we all know each other.” In order to fill all necessary spots, anyone interested in volunteering for the event could sign up on a website for available positions.
Night to Shine’s impact, however, is not reduced to one night. Peter and Naomi Gill, who currently serve on JBU’s campus as the missionaries in residence, explained the impact of the event on the community. “Night to Shine is all about everybody coming together and celebrating people for who they are,” Peter Gill said. “Through Night to Shine, we were able to grow and mature in how to communicate and show others the love of Jesus.”
The Tebow Foundation further highlights its mission by stating that its goal is “to let people know that God loves them and that they are worthy,” according to its website.
Walenciak, through his previous experience volunteering for Night to Shine in Guatemala, said that there will be an outcome that holistically impacts the guests of honor, the volunteers and the churches involved. “For the people with special needs, this event will elevate their self esteem and will be an unforgettable memory they will want to repeat,” he said. “For us who volunteered, this will be one of those moments in life that are rare, and what a blessing.”
Peter and Naomi Gill further explained the impact the event will have on the Siloam Springs Christian community. “It is not about doctrine or what we believe in as a church but about showing God’s love for all groups of people,” Peter Gill said. Naomi Gill added, “When we focus on love and what Jesus commanded us to do on Earth, we are breaking down all barriers.”
Night to Shine first and foremost benefits people with special needs and empowers them to celebrate who they are. Through its encouraging message to love each other for how God created them, volunteers are also blessed by sharing God’s love and celebrating differences. Night to Shine is also an opportunity for the body of Christ to join together and be one, which, Walenciak said, is how “the power of unity is far greater than the power of competition.”