By Miya Jones
Inclusivity is a wonderful thing, but exclusivity for a group that is often overlooked can be good too, and that is part of Night to Shine’s purpose. The event, started by the Tim Tebow Foundation five years ago, is a prom that dedicates a night of pampering and fun to those with special needs.
“Most proms wouldn’t have a celebration of those with special needs, there would be accommodations for those with special needs,” said Co-Pastor Todd Bishop of Church Unleashed. The Commack church was one of many selected to host the event. “The biggest thing for me is seeing the smiles on their faces and then going downstairs to the moms and dads and seeing them tear up.”
At Church Unleashed, around 250 to 300 volunteers came together and hosted over 100 special needs guests ages 14 and over. There were also several vendors who offered their services for free along with guest appearances from sports teams, a visit from some “Star Wars” stormtroopers and superheroes and service dogs for the participants to pet and have fun with in different rooms. This night of festivity has been replicated throughout the world. Last year, 537 churches from 33 denominations, in 49 states and 16 countries rallied 150,000 volunteers. They were able to honor 90,000 guests with special needs.
“One of our staff members has a sister who has down syndrome, and that kind of opened our eyes to the special needs community,” said Co-Pastor, and wife of Todd, Mary Bishop. “We wanted to do something special. We saw Tim Tebow’s Night to Shine and we thought what a better way to celebrate them.”
The four-month preparation for the event included pairing each guest with a buddy who had guidance on how to make the night as special as possible for the honorees. Then, all the participants were crowned Kings and Queens of the court.
“I feel there are people that support nights like today, but what I don’t see here are our elected officials that should be here,” said Leg. Samuel Gonzalez of the ninth district. He and Sen. Monica Martinez were present.
“To see these kids dancing, and having a great time and coming in limousines it brings up their spirits,” said Gonzalez. “To not see more elected officials here is a shame, but it’s okay because I’m here and I will do everything in my power to continue working for nights like tonight.”
Gonzalez’s goal is to bring more programming and events for those with special needs back to his district in Brentwood, North Bayshore and Central Islip. He wants to bring more resources into the community including a specialized task force that will help place children with autism into the necessary programs early on.
The Bishops noticed a lack of programming as well, specifically in the house of God. They started a special needs ministry a year ago called the Champion’s Club.
“We’ve talked to parents and a lot of them said it’s difficult for them to go to church,” said Todd. “Any time their child would shout out or be a little disruptive, they were kicked out or looked at and we said we’re not gonna have that here.”
Todd recalled one incident in particular that set the tone for their push to be more helpful to those with special needs.
“We have a young man named Sammy,” said Todd. “Before we started our special needs program on Sundays, he would make some noises in our service. I remember one Sunday standing up as I saw some heads turn back. I said, ‘Hey guys, up here. If you don’t like the noise our special community makes, there are other churches you can go to because they’re here to stay.'”
Amarisa Coymen, who has been with the church for about two years, volunteers on Sundays with the children’s ministry and she said it was hard to find a church that was even child-friendly period.
“I feel like God lead me here,” said Coymen. “I love the atmosphere. It’s very family-friendly and you feel God’s presence here.”
After finding a permanent home at Church Unleashed, Coymen was more than happy to volunteer for Night to Shine, and like everyone else, found joy in the smiles of those honored.
“I love seeing the participants’ and the guests’ faces and they’re all dressed up and they just feel so special and loved,” said Coymen. “You just hope that they feel this hope and love every day.”