Hays’ first Night to Shine lived up to its name Friday night.
As more than 400 people filled Celebration Community Church, lights and smiles flashed throughout the night during the prom-like project for the special needs community.
And it was happening over and over on the same night in more than 500 churches across the United States and 16 countries, according to the Tim Tebow Foundation, which sponsors the event.
In Hays, Tiger Pals, a student group at Fort Hays State University, ARC of the Central Plains and Celebration Church joined to bring the event to Hays for the first time. The Tebow Foundation requires a church sponsorship for the event.
The timing of Tiger Pals approaching the church about sponsorship couldn’t have been more perfect, Celebration Senior Pastor Brant Rice said.
“Several months ago, we began to look and see where we felt the Lord was leading us a church and what we need to focus on. It really led us to a few different groups of people that we're going to invest in, one of which was the special needs community,” he said.
The church’s membership includes many from the special needs community and those who work with them, Rice said.
The church also opened a 16,000 square-foot expansion in September, making it an ideal location for Night to Shine.
“The timing again was just perfect in having a building that would accommodate not only this amount of people here, but as well being able to provide a meal for them in our gymnasium and making use of the classrooms we have,” he said.
More than 300 volunteers signed up to help 130 people from the region’s special needs community have a night of food, dancing and games.
As the guests arrived at Celebration’s entrance, they walked the red carpet welcomed by photographers and a crowd cued by greeter Lauren Oldham of Tiger Pals. Oldham held up color-coded cards to let the crowd know to cheer loudly or offer a more subdued applause for those guests sensitive to stimuli like noise and lights.
Each guest was then matched with a volunteer “buddy,” who accompanied them through the night, making sure they got to each part of the celebration.
After all the guests had arrived, they were greeted by Rice in the church’s new 550-seat worship center. Then the promenade began, with Rice introducing each guest, who crossed the stage and posed for a picture to cheers from the crowd.
Many of the guests wore gowns or suits donated to the ARC for the occasion, and struck a pose showing off their fancy threads.
A dinner of chicken alfredo and steamed vegetables catered by Gella’s Diner was in the church gym. After the meal, guests and buddies could visit, sing karaoke, play games or take a ride in a party bus around the parking lot until it was time for the dance, also in the gym.
The church’s classrooms provided respite space for parents and caretakers, who could enjoy a massage or just visit and enjoy the meal and h'orderves.
Before the night was through, each guest would cross the stage again to receive a crown or tiara, as all were named king and queen of the night.
For the organizers, it was well-worth the months of work putting Night to Shine together. Keshawn Sewell, president of Tiger Pals, said volunteers spent about 40 out of the preceding 48 hours getting the church ready for the event.
“It’s honestly hard not to cry right now,” he said early in the evening as guests continued to walk the red carpet. “It’s really neat to see how much happiness this brings not only to the guests but to the volunteers.”
FHSU senior Katelyn Unruh said it was “awesome” to see the guests pumping up the crowd as they crossed the stage in the promenade.
As Miss Topeka 2018, Unruh’s sash and crown drew many to her for photos. Her platform, title “Shine,” is centered on the special needs community.
“The hard work already paid off just seeing them walk in the door and their faces with the lights and the red carpet, but it just keeps getting better,” she said.