The lights were dimmed last Friday night as blue and red strobes flashed in the Essex Alliance Church gymnasium, where guests broke out in funky dance moves at the end of a red carpet, cloaked under a large balloon arch.
One of 350 churches worldwide to host Night to Shine, a prom organized by the Tim Tebow Foundation, Essex Alliance welcomed 85 guests with disabilities and about 140 caregivers and 250 volunteers.
“Tonight has been really awesome because it’s been allowing me to have a great social opportunity and see friends I haven’t seen in long time,” guest Bennett Townley, 19, said.
As songs like the “Cupid Shuffle,” “We Are Family” and “The Cha Cha Slide” blasted from the speakers, attendees between ages 14 and 70 swayed back and forth and waved their hands in the air as laughter escaped their wide smiles.
For some, it was their first prom; for others, it was their first date.
In Kaitlyn Hollden’s case, it was both. The 28-year old Colchester resident went to her homecoming but never prom. This time, she was crowned queen, and her date was capped king, along with the 83 other guests.
“The joy on the hearts of these children takes your breath away,” event co-chair Bill Smith said.
“When we say children, we say it loosely,” his wife and co-chair, Susan Smith, said of the guests and their
“uniquely able” daughter. “Because our daughter is 43, but they’re kind of kids in their hearts. And they’re pure; pure hearts, pure joy, loving; it’s like God gifted them with something extra, which is love.”
Purposely scheduled the weekend before Valentine’s Day, the night was founded on showering the attendees with love and care, Sarah McNulty of Essex Alliance said.
Once arriving at the church, guests checked in, received a nametag and met their “buddy” of the night before heading to the hair and makeup room, where they got dolled up for free.
Shoes were shined, hair was curled and sparkly flats were slipped on before they climbed into a limo, which escorted them a few dozen yards down the drive to the gym.
As the limo doors opened, the passengers’ names were loudly announced before they were escorted down the red carpet as paparazzi surrounded them with flashing cameras.
To Angella Pratt’s surprise, a “buddy” from Colchester, she was matched with a familiar guest. A special educator, Pratt is highly involved in the disabled community.
“I actually went to his high school prom with him,” she said of her guest, Sammy Minter. She’s done personal care for Minter for 10 years; last year, they ventured to Disney together.
An hour or so into the event, Minter stepped away from his walker and into Pratt’s arms, moving and grooving on the dance floor.
Parents and caregivers watched from a room above, enjoying a catered meal.
“We’ve got all them accounted for,” one woman said, leaning on her husband’s shoulder.
Down by the food tables, which showcased cotton candy, popcorn and fried favorites, Cindy Rickson stood with her 23-year old daughter, Caitlin.
Rickson couldn’t decide who was more excited: her or her daughter. One thing she knew for sure, though, was this prom was more enjoyable than Caitlin’s high school one.
“Caitlin has been tolerated, patronized and accommodated for, but she’s never been celebrated,” Rickson said.
Last Friday night was all about the celebration.
This year was the first time Night to Shine traveled to Vermont. Essex Alliance, along with another church in southern Vermont, brought the prom to life.
When the pastor at Essex Alliance announced he’d like to adopt the event, the Smiths immediately jumped on board. Planning started in November, and they got the final go-head from the Tim Tebow Foundation in December.
The Smiths saw it as a unique opportunity, one their daughter never had the chance to experience. As they began talking to other people in the community, they learned that many other parents with children with disabilities were in the same boat.
“The excitement level is just off the charts,” Bill Smith said.
Next year, they hope to pass the torch to their daughter’s pastor in San Diego. That way, she can have a night to shine, too.
As for Essex, the co-chairs said they’re already looking forward to making the 2018 Night to Shine bigger and better.
“I’m just grateful for the opportunity for a lot of these kids and adults to get out and have a night of fun and just celebrate them and have a great time together,” Jennifer Townley said.
Moments later, her son, Bennett, headed back into the red and blue lights with his new buddy by his side, ready to break out another dance move.