NIGHT TO SHINE “Night to Shine,” an event for men and women with special needs, was held on Feb. 8 at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in the Haskell section of Wanaque. 100 guests dressed up to party the night away at a prom that most of them had never experienced before. The event was sponsored by the Tim Tebow Foundation and hosted by the parishes of St. Francis and St. Catherine of Bologna, Ringwood. CLICK HERE FOR MORE PHOTOS Parishes in Haskell and Ringwood sponsor ‘Night to Shine’ for those with special needs By MICHAEL WOJCIK, News Editor
HASKELL C.J. looks sharp in his suit and tie, as he “boogies down” to club hits and classics with friends on a darkened dance floor speckled with white and blue light. He and his pals seem busy soaking up the music, fun and friendship of this night of nights and, for a few hours, forgetting about mental or physical limitations that make their lives challenging.
Welcome to “Night to Shine” for men and women with special needs on Feb. 8 at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in the Haskell section of Wanaque, where C.J. and 99 other guests dressed up — many in sequined gowns and suits — to party the night away at a prom that most of them had never experienced before. An army of 277 volunteers were on hand to give these special guests the royal treatment — starting with a dazzling red-carpet welcome — for this special evening, sponsored by the Tim Tebow Foundation and hosted by the parishes of St. Francis and St. Catherine of Bologna, Ringwood.
“It’s so much fun to dance with my friends. It’s packed tonight,” C.J., 22, told The Beacon, as he took a break from dancing at the prom, which took place in the gym of the former St. Francis of Assisi School. “This is a night for us. There are times that we can’t be part of something. Here, we can have fun; we don’t feel left out. It’s just ‘us.’ I also have friends here in wheelchairs, which shows that you can do anything if you put your mind to it,” he said.
The gym sparkled with blue and white — blue for the Tim Tebow Foundation — and filled up with the smiles and laughter of these special people of various shapes, sizes, abilities and ethnicities. Some walked with the help of canes or walkers, some rode in wheelchairs and one young man even came in lying in a stretcher. Accompanying them were their dates — or “buddies” — people from the two parishes, ranging in ages from 14 to 73; their aide; or a sibling.
None of their disabilities mattered that night, when Tim Tebow — a former professional football player and a current outfielder for the N.Y. Mets AAA team — told them via video that they were all created by God, “who has a purpose for you.” Then, he officially crowned all the guests as kings and queens of the prom. Their buddies revealed crowns that they were hiding behind their backs and placed them on their heads — much to their smiles of delight.
“I love everything about tonight: the dancing, spending time with my friend Liz, the red carpet and the special treatment. I also like getting dressed up fancy, which I don’t do normally,” said Heather, who got out of her wheelchair that night to stand up and dance with her aide, Janine Schmelz.
The magic night started at two entrances of the former school, where volunteers — local police officers in uniform and parishioners of the two faith communities in formal dress — stood under canopies to welcome the guests as they arrived by car. As they entered the building, the guests were greeted by two rows on either side of police, EMTs and other volunteers, who clapped, cheered and shouted words of encouragement, such as “Looking good” or “You look so beautiful.”
Soon, the guests approached the doors of the gym, where they stepped onto a red carpet that led inside. An announcer called out each of their names in public — amid even more clapping — and they stepped up with their buddies to pose for a professional photo. They also took pictures at a photo booth nearby. Then, guests and buddies sat at their tables, adorned with balloons and black tablecloths, for a dinner that included chicken and pasta, donated by local restaurants, that was served by a hearty crew of volunteers from the parishes.
Outside of the gym, guests found a colorful array of activities in some of the classrooms to keep them busy. Guests enjoyed belting out their favorite songs, such as “You Don’t Know You’re Beautiful” by One Direction in the two karaoke rooms. The men stepped into a room for a shoeshine, while the women went to another room, where they got a “touch up” with more makeup or quick hair styling. Many guests went for a limousine ride, while some of them were experiencing anxiety and visited a special dark and quiet sensory room.
“In the karaoke rooms, the young people knew all the words to all the songs by heart. I love the way that they smile, laugh, have fun and support each other,” said Wendy Rothlauf of St. Catherine, who volunteered for the karaoke room last year, when her parish hosted “Night to Shine” by itself. “This is fabulous. For a while, they forget that they have special needs,” she said.
Meanwhile, across the parking lot from the school in St. Francis’ parish center, volunteers were serving dinner to the guests’ parents or caregivers, as they enjoyed some entertainment, which included a comedienne and a musician.
Lori Michel of St. Francis, C.J.’s guardian, came with him to last year’s event. “It’s nice to have a place where people with special needs children talk with each other. I feel good that C.J. is part of a social activity in a safe environment. There are people who can help him regulate his anxiety,” said Michel, a special education teacher. “C.J. gets excited about this night weeks before. He likes dancing, being with his friends and being king of the prom; he never had this. It’s a special night,” she said.
Scurrying around to make sure that all the activities ran like clockwork was Blair Ransom of St. Catherine’s, who coordinated the event this year with Lisa Crilly of St. Francis. They reached out to people in the parish and community to donate needed items or volunteer. They also made certain that the staff underwent background checks and that the volunteers and buddies took training about how to interact with people with special needs. The two coordinators and the five members of the guest host team had to work out an endless number of details, such as knowing which guests are verbal and non-verbal, which utensils that they use and any special dietary needs, Ransom said.
“This is just amazing. This is not just a prom. It’s people, who become forever changed by God’s love. Tonight, we are showing that love to people, especially those with special needs. This prom represents what it means to be the Body of Christ,” said Ransom in the midst of her coordination duties.
That evening, St. Catherine’s and St. Francis tapped into the worldwide “Night to Shine” event for people with special needs 14 and older on Feb. 8, when 655 Catholic and Christian churches around the globe came together to host a prom for a total of about 100,000 honored guests through the support of 200,000 volunteers. Many of the guests of “Night to Shine” in Haskell came from local organizations, such as Special Olympics, Saturday Stars, Young Life Capernaum and the diocesan Department of Persons with Disabilities, said Ransom, who acknowledged the support of Father Pawel Szurek, St. Catherine’s pastor; Father Greg Golba, St. Francis’ pastor; benefactors; and volunteers from the parish and community.
“This is amazing. It’s great to see the guests’ faces light up. They are so happy to be here and are so excited to dance,” said Victoria Anne Figliuolo, 14, of St. Catherine’s, a first-time volunteer.
Taking in the sights that night was Father Szurek, who called the prom “a wonderful initiative, so the young people can feel important.” Also attending was Father Golba, who told The Beacon, “We are letting them know that God loves them by celebrating with them as a community.”
During dinner, one guest approached Crilly and delighted in showing her the photo that she took with her buddy.
“That’s the magic of tonight,” said Crilly, the mother of a young special needs son. “The magic effect goes both ways. The volunteers learn life lessons about God’s love, about compassion and about the love of a child. The guests feel the magic of having been celebrated. For me, it has been a privilege to do this,” she said.
At the end of the prom, the buddies brought the guests back to their parents or caregivers and told them stories — some funny, some touching — from the evening. Jamie Giordano of St. Catherine’s talked about “the best part of the night” with her guest, Taylor, who was nervous and quiet at the beginning.
“All of a sudden, Taylor grabbed my hands and we were dancing and she was beaming. She looked so happy and was having so much fun. I could tell any anxiety she had was gone and she was a totally different person than from when she came in. It was like literally watching her light up in front of my eyes. It made me cry,” Giordano said.