Everyone deserves a night to shine–that’s the philosophy behind Night to Shine, a prom for teenagers and young adults with special needs that is being organized for the second year in a row by Grace Church, and held at Grace Farms in New Canaan. Individuals with special needs from across Fairfield County attend along with volunteer buddies age 16-and-up, and enjoy a magical evening with dancing, entertainment and friendship.
This year’s Night to Shine event is happening on Friday, Feb. 9. It’s one of over 500 similar events taking place across the country on the same night, through the Tim Tebow Foundation.
Wilton High School junior Maddie Jelilian believes in the concept so strongly that she went from being a volunteer last year to one of the members of the organizing committee this year. She volunteers at school and through the Wilton Family Y with special needs peers, and found Night to Shine incredibly important to support.
“Finding out about this was just awesome. Last year, I was just a buddy. I loved the event so much that I asked if I could be more involved. I’ve never been to prom because I am a junior, but you go to a dance and you have fun. Knowing that you’re there to make someone else’s night just makes it so much more special. It just puts a smile on your face,” Jelilian says.
The night is incredibly special. Each of the guests gets the opportunity to be pampered and really made to feel like they are prom kings and queens–from the moment they enter along the red carpet, to getting the opportunity to have their hair styled, shoes shined, makeup done, and be transported by limo.
“There’s so much thought put into this,” Jelilian says. “Last year they had the dance floor up front, but we decided to move it to the back so kids who have hearing sensitivity, they won’t walk in and first hear music.”
Not only do the guests have the time of their lives, but the thoughtfulness extends to their parents as well.
“The parents have their own room where they can just have a night of relaxation. There are TVs around, so they can see what their kids are doing, but the parents are just having a night for themselves because, when you think about it, having kids with special needs is a hands-on job. The whole night, it’s not only for the child themselves, but it’s for the parents as well, which is really important, which they fully appreciate,” Jelilian says, with wisdom beyond her 17 years.
Wilton High School sophomore Estelle Bam is one such guest who absolutely loved attending last year’s Night to Shine.
“I loved the music and dancing. I also loved when you arrive. Everyone is cheering you and making you feel really welcome. I have made lots of new friends,” she recalls.
Her mom, Trisha Bam, enjoyed watching her daughter from the moment she entered.
“There is a long walkway of Red Carpet and all the volunteers cheer the attendees, do high fives, and really welcome each one of them. Estelle absolutely loved it. It was quite emotional because Estelle was so happy and you could genuinely see how amazing the group of volunteers are and how welcoming they were for each teen. Each teen is the King or Queen of the Prom and received a crown and flowers when they arrived. They are told they are important and special and loved. Estelle did not want it to end and cannot wait to go this February,” she says.
Jelilian is overseeing volunteer recruitment with her friend, Maggie Wingertzahn. They’re hoping that more people from Wilton will step forward to support the night by volunteering to be buddies.
“Basically what a buddy does is stay with a guest throughout the whole night. They dance with them, they do whatever the guest wants throughout the whole night,” she explains.
Buddies need to be 16 years old or older. Prior experience working with kids with special needs is not a requirement. But a willingness to have fun and be up for anything is important.
“Last year for Night to Shine, Maggie and I were buddies with the kid with the most energy out of anyone. He wasn’t very verbal, but he all he wanted to do was run blocks around the gym. All the parents were laughing, and were like, ‘Oh my gosh, you guys are getting a workout. Are you okay?’ We were like, ‘We’re having so much fun!’ Honestly, we were laughing the whole time. All the kids were dancing and jumping up and down, so it was definitely a night of sweat. It was awesome!” Jelilian says, laughing.
But the real reason to volunteer is best summed up by Estelle’s mom, Trisha.
“If you are looking to spend a few hours dancing, having fun and watching kids faces light up and smile, this event is for you. The volunteers have the biggest hearts and you can tell they were really having fun. My husband and I are so appreciative of the Grace Community Church and the volunteers.”
For more information about volunteering at the event, visit the event volunteer page.