"I get treated like a rock star," says John Heaton, 36, as he picks out his boutonniere at Night to Shine, a promlike event for people ages 14 and older who have special needs. Feb. 7 was Heaton’s fourth Night to Shine.
"I love feeling like a rock star. Drum set ... guitar ... piano," Heaton says as he pantomimes playing each instrument, one by one.
The event, held at Austin Ridge Bible Church’s Bee Cave campus, was the fifth the church has hosted. It was part of the Tim Tebow Foundation’s network of Night to Shine events — 721 took place this year in all 50 states and 34 countries; typically, the events are all held on the same night.
The foundation provides the framework of how to celebrate guests and sends a special video message from former NFL player Tim Tebow that plays on the big screen.
Night to Shine is part of Austin Ridge’s Embrace ministry to celebrate people with special needs.
"We wanted to do something that would engage our community," says Amy Sutherland, who heads the Embrace ministry at the church.
When guests arrive, they are paired with a volunteer, aka their date or pal for the night. Sometimes it’s a random selection; sometimes they’ve pre-requested someone.
Kristina Ritchie accompanied Kevin Ward for the third year. Each year, Ward, 32, gives her a different name for the night. "I call her Donna," he says, as in Donna from "Mamma Mia." He also gives himself a name. One year he was Prince Ali, as in "Aladdin."
Ritchie looks forward to spending Night to Shine with Ward because it’s a wonderful way for her to give back. She has a son who is 8 and has special needs. "It’s great to be on the other side," she says.
This year, the local Night to Shine event had 230 guests and 700 volunteers who worked as pals, helped put out food, greeted guests and made milkshakes.
"I’m so overwhelmed by how wonderful it is," says parent Susana Perez. "You can’t believe that so many people volunteer and give up their time to do something for our kids. ... It’s a wonderful gift our kids get to have."
"It makes me very happy," says her daughter, Sofia Jimenez, 22, before being intercepted by another guest who hugged her. "This is my friend," she says.
Family members go to a nearby building where Night to Dine is happening. There they are treated to dinner, and they can watch their loved ones enjoy the dance through a livestream.
Cindy Millner said one of the things about this dance that’s different from a typical high school prom is that her kids, who are 18 and 17, could attend, and while there is supervision with the one-on-one or two-on-one pals, it’s not the same as adult supervision (teachers, aides and parents) at school. Here they just get to be who they are and be kids, Millner says. And she’s getting a full meal and watching from afar. "My kids don’t want me there," she says, and that’s a good thing.
Her children have also met friends by attending. They’ll get phone numbers and hang out throughout the year.
"They do a fantastic job here," says parent Millner. "It’s not just something they throw together. They do it up."
For the guests, Night to Shine has a salon to have their hair and makeup done, receive boutonniere or corsages and have their photos taken.
As Annamaria Salazar, 20, is getting her hair done, she says, "My mom bought my dress, I love her." This is her third time at Night to Shine. What does she love about the night? "My nails ... my hair ... my makeup. I like to dance," she says.
Her mom, Leticia Quintanilla, says she was introduced to Night to Shine by the parents of one of her daughter’s friends.
"She’s so loved it," Quintanilla says. "I was so blown away for everything they do for the kids. We’ve been coming ever since."
To make sure that all the guests have something to wear, Austin Ridge also collects fancy dresses and invites guests to come and pick one out about a month before.
After the salon, guests take a limo ride from the salon building to the prom building. It becomes literal red-carpet treatment as guests walk the carpet surrounded by volunteers cheering. There are actually two red carpets, one where the crowd is cheering loudly and one with silent cheering for anyone who prefers not to have loud noises.
Night to Shine also has a room with a silent disco, where you can listen to music on headphones as opposed to the DJ in the big room with the thumping bass.
Once inside the prom, each guest is crowned the king or queen of the prom with a tiara or crown and has their name announced over the loudspeaker.
From there, guests dance, get their faces painted, eat dinner and step up to the famous milkshake bar. In other years, they’ve sung karaoke, too.
Kayla Latham, 24, was excited about the face painting. "I love this because I want a real tattoo," she says. She’s also excited about her dress. "I don’t do orange," she says as she clarifies the color. "I do peach."
Inside the dance, the crowd is singing along to songs like "Baby" by Justin Bieber and "Cha Cha Slide" by DJ Casper.
Benjamin Erwin, 16, was on the dance floor with his brothers, Raleigh and Wesley, who have been trying to get him to dance at Night to Shine for two years with no success. "We always push him to do it," says Wesley Erwin. This year he told them, "I want to go dance," Wesley Erwin says. "He was super excited to do that."
On the dance floor, the three brothers were jumping up and down to "Cha Cha Slide."
It takes about a year to plan Night to Shine for Austin Ridge. They know they’ll be taking a break next year because of a construction project at the church. Families will be looking for another Night to Shine event or another church to host.
"This is a huge event every year for Joe because he knows it’s coming," says Joseph Williams’ mom, Teresa Williams. "This is his night to go off and not be special ed but just be special and have an amazing time."