Hays’ second Night to Shine was twice as big.
The event Friday night — in conjunction with the Tim Tebow Foundation and more than 650 churches across the country on the same night — is a prom night experience for those 14 and older in the special needs community.
This year, they came from from more areas, too — groups from Atwood and Hill City, and others from Smith Center and Sylvan Grove.
As the guests entered Celebration Community Church, 5790 230th Ave., they walked a red carpet, greeted by cheering fans and “paparazzi” taking pictures. A volunteer signaled the crowd with colored cards if it was OK to cheer loudly or to give a quieter welcome for those sensitive to noise and lights.
Inside they were matched with a volunteer “buddy” to help make sure they got to enjoy all of the evening’s activities.
This year, more than 800 guests and volunteers filled the church, starting the evening in the 550-seat worship center for the promenade. Senior Pastor Brant Rice introduced each guest, who got their picture taken on stage before heading with their buddies to a dinner in the gym catered by Gella’s Diner.
While volunteers cleaned tables and put them away for the dance, guests could play games, sing karaoke and takes rides in a party bus or limo around the church’s parking lot.
It’s a lot of work to make it all happen, said one of the organizers, Brent Kaiser, activities director at Arc of the Central Plains, but having the previous year’s experience helped, even with some new people to the team.
“We were really mostly done with everything by eight o’clock last night,” he said Friday afternoon.
As with last year, Tiger Pals, a student group at Fort Hays State University, assisted with the planning and setup, but with new officers.
“But they’ve jumped in and everything’s just kind of stayed in stride,” Kaiser said.
John Egan and Grace Buessing, president and vice president of Tiger Pals, both volunteered last year. Peri Lange also assisted with the planning, but as a member of the FHSU track team, was traveling for a meet on Saturday.
“Even launching with it last year, I knew I wanted to do more with it this coming year,” Buessing said. Last year, she was a buddy for one of the guests.
The planning committee, which also included Drew Gannon, director of the FHSU Wellness Center, and Haley Nixon, intellectual and developmental disabilities program director at Hays Recreation Commission, met weekly for about six months — and more frequently as the event drew near — to bring Friday night’s event together.
And while many of the 400 volunteers were members of Celebration Church, there also were many from outside the church, Kaiser said.
One volunteer even came from Littleton, Colo.
“Obviously she could have gone to one in Denver, but she wants to be part of the one here because she has some ties to our church, but she also saw how successful the personal relationship was with our guests and how well it was done,” Kaiser said.
More than 30 business donated to the evening. Making those connections was easier this year since more people understand what Night to Shine is, Kaiser said. Donations included food, prizes, flowers and hair appointments from Hays Academy of Hair Design.
“It’s been a really cool deal to see our community come together,” he said.
A big donation this year came from Jim’s Formal Wear in Salina, which gave 100 tuxedos for the men and boys, delivered to the Arc’s community room two weeks ago for an evening for guests to pick out their outfits. Last year saw a number of dresses donated for the women and girls, but few suits. The guests get to keep the clothes they choose to wear for the night.
The Hays committee approached the formal wear company about the donation, and now the company is considering doing the same nationwide for Night to Shine, Kaiser said.
All the hard work paid off, as guests smiled, laughed and danced through the evening.
Tallias McNabb was one of several who attended from a group home in Hill City. In a bright blue tuxedo vest, he sang Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World” at the karaoke station, getting cheers and high fives from the crowd.
“I’m not used to being dressed up like this,” he said, but he’s danced at lots of weddings, he said.
In a respite room, parents and caretakers of guests were treated to a meal, refreshments and chair massages from FHSU massage therapy students, who volunteered for the evening.
For Jill Lawson, Sylvan Grove, it was a chance for her and her husband to connect with other parents as well as a fun time for their son, Steven, 20, who had a traumatic brain injury.
“For me it means he gets to be accepted for being who he is,” she said, her voice choking with emotion.
“He’s well loved in his community, but to feel the people around here … there’s a lot of love here,” she said.