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2019-02-01 / Features

Shining Stars

Night to Shine prom treats guests with special needs like red carpet royalty.
Robyn Passante


When Megan Ritchey rolled up to the Central PA Night to Shine prom last year in Boalsburg, it had been a decade since she’d attended a prom. The first one, for her alma mater Altoona Area High School, was fun enough, she recalls, a group outing with her friends at which the bright student with cerebral palsy found herself trying, like usual, to fit in.

But at Night to Shine, the Altoona Bible Institute student reveled in the chance to stand out. Ritchey, like every other guest that night, was given the royal treatment, from the red carpet ride in her electric wheelchair upon her arrival, to the prom queen tiara placed gingerly on her head later that evening.
“They just make you feel really special,” says Ritchey, 28, of the Night to Shine experience. “And that doesn’t happen often.”

On Feb. 8, the second annual Central PA Night to Shine will give about 150 guests, including Ritchey, the same star treatment for a few hours at Calvary Harvest Fields in Boalsburg. The local church is just one of 655 churches around the world hosting a Night to Shine prom. Collectively, more than 200,000 volunteers will help to make Feb. 8 unforgettable for more than 100,000 special guests. It’s a program sponsored by the Tim Tebow Foundation, a Christian nonprofit created by the professional athlete “to bring faith, hope and love to those needing a brighter day in their darkest hour of need,” according to the foundation’s website.

Night to Shine is free to guests with special needs ages 14 and older. Though there are a good number of attendees in their teens and 20s, organizer Lisa Lesher says among the most poignant moments is seeing senior citizens dressed in semiformal and formal attire arrive for what is for many their very first prom.

“It’s cool to have the young kids there,” Lesher says, “but when you see an 80-year-old coming into a prom and the smile and the joy on their face, it truly is overwhelming.”

Lesher, who attends Calvary, learned of Night to Shine a couple years ago. She had a nephew with intellectual disabilities and autism whom the family lost three years ago in a tragic accident; he was 27. “I just think of what something like this would have meant to him,” she says.

Lesher says she knew Centre County would be a great place to host such a prom, not only because it was a chance to pamper some of our region’s special residents, but also because this area has a wealth of volunteers and generous businesses willing to help pull off this type of event.

“I get a lot of feedback of people saying ‘Thank you for all your time,’” she says. “It does take a lot of time to plan this, but my big thing is without the volunteers this will not happen.”

About 270 volunteers, who’ve all undergone background checks and training, are ready to help this year’s prom run smoothly. They’ll do everything from decorate the room, to work security, to stand along the red carpet clapping and cheering as guests stroll — or roll — down it.

“Some walk it and then say, ‘Can I go again?’ And they do,” Lesher says. “They love it.”

One of the unique roles a volunteer fills is to be a guest’s designated companion for the evening. Valerie Noel, who lives in State College, signed up to help last year and was paired with Ritchey upon her arrival. Ritchey’s mother, Susan, gave Noel a card detailing her daughter’s food allergies and sensory sensitivities, along with Susan’s smartphone so Noel could snap pictures of her daughter’s big night. Then the two new friends headed off into the crowd, Noel steering Ritchey’s wheelchair, at her request.

“Her mom said, ‘Oh she really wants the royal treatment,’” Noel recalls of Ritchey wanting Noel to drive the wheelchair. The duo spent the night dancing, laughing and having fun together.

“It was such an honor, that she just let me be her buddy for the night,” Noel says. “I was a stranger, you know? And she just trusted me … and I trusted her.”

The pair skipped the stations that included taking a limo ride, getting your shoes shined or your hair and nails done — Ritchey had gone to a salon for her prom ’do earlier that day — but took advantage of the karaoke room and, of course, the dance floor.

“What I like about Night to Shine,” says Ritchey, who is the co-outreach coordinator for Blair County Special Olympics, “is they have a big enough space where you can dance in a wheelchair.”

DJ Laine Roland traveled from Altoona to spin records, figuratively speaking, for the evening’s festivities. She says rather than the typical hip-hop tunes she’s played at other proms, for Night to Shine she sticks more to her repertoire of multigenerational favorites that she plays for wedding receptions — everything from “Build Me Up, Buttercup” to “Come On, Eileen.”

“I hate to say it, but it’s almost better than a regular prom,” says Roland, who refrains from using flashing lights due to sensory sensitivities among some guests. “With regular proms, a lot of the kids are there because of the tradition, their parents have said, ‘You gotta go to prom!’ Whereas this being outside of school, they had the choice to come.”

For this prom, parents who wish to stay are treated to their own catered dinner in a separate room, where they can socialize with other parents, be treated to free chair massages from local professionals donating their time, and watch the action on the dance floor from live feeds shown on TVs. This allows caregivers to keep an eye on their kids while giving them space to socialize with their new buddies and feel independent for awhile.

“Day in and day out (parents) endlessly give their time and care for their loved ones,” Lesher says. “So this is just a night that we can give something to them. To me it seems so small, but so important.”
Susan Ritchey stuck around for the evening with her husband, Jerry, who enjoyed a complimentary chair massage. The couple watched from afar as their daughter and Noel smiled, chatted and danced up a storm.

“It’s always wonderful to see your child treated special,” she says. “When you see the smile on your own child’s face, it’s just everything.”

Those smiles get even wider at 8 p.m., when live footage from other proms is shown on a giant screen, Tim Tebow leads everyone in a brief prayer, and every single guest is crowned king or queen with either a crown or a tiara. When that time came last year, Noel had the privilege of bestowing Ritchey with her own prom queen tiara.

“It was amazing. Literally, I think my face hurt because you smile the entire time,” says Noel, a licensed professional counselor who had previously met several of the attendees over the years. “There’s nothing happening outside of that area. I forgot about everything and anything except what was happening there.”

And she gets to do it again this year. The fast friends have kept in touch over the past year and, when Ritchey decided to attend Night to Shine again (as repeat guests are welcome!), she asked Noel if they could buddy up once more.

Ritchey and her mother already shopped for the prom queen’s gown for this year’s event, a white formal dress with gold sequins on top. Noel, who has two recently worn mother-of-the-groom dresses in her closet as possibilities, is still considering what she’ll wear. “I’m trying to look good for her,” says Noel.  

Buddies are asked to dress appropriately in semiformal or formal attire, but not to be too flashy “because it’s not about you, it’s about them,” she says.

Roland, who moved to Virginia last year, is driving up to DJ this year’s event, and says she’s adding two new DJs to her business and hopes to add more Night to Shine events to her calendar. “Even if you’re not a football fan, or a Tim Tebow fan, you gotta love how much happiness this brings to people,” she says. “It’s a great event to be a part of.”

Lesher is trying to line up three limos this year for free guest rides, as the wait for rides last year was quite long. She’s hoping one of the vehicles will be wheelchair-accessible, to give guests like Ritchey the ability to take advantage of that particular prom perk. Regardless, organizers are certain the second annual Central PA Night to Shine will be a success.

“When you get a bunch of happy people together, it’s beautiful. They light up,” Roland says. “I think that’s why they call it Night to Shine.” •SCM


 To make a donation or volunteer for Central PA Night to Shine,
email centralpanighttoshine@gmail.com.

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