No music playing, no paparazzi flashes going off, no kings and queens attired in formalwear — just eerie silence on a night that should’ve been unforgettable for a special group of people.
Faith United Methodist Church in Cartersville should have been rocking the evening of Feb. 12 as the host of an event that Bartow County’s special needs population looks forward to every year — Night to Shine 2021.
But due to COVID-19 pandemic, the church’s fourth annual prom night experience for people with special needs ages 14 and older had to be presented through a unique online event.
“On one night, hundreds of churches of different denominations from all over the world come together to celebrate people with special needs,” said Josie Hickom, who serves as the Faith UMC event co-coordinator with her husband, Doug. “This year, for the safety of the honored guests, Night to Shine was a virtual experience.”
Sponsored by the Tim Tebow Foundation, the seventh annual special needs prom takes place in churches around the world simultaneously each year on the Friday night before Valentine’s Day and has grown from 15,000 volunteers from 44 churches in 26 states and three countries coming together to honor 7,000 guests in 2015 to 215,000 volunteers from 721 churches in all 50 states and 34 countries serving 110,000 honored guests in 2020.
This year, however, there were no decorations, no guests dancing with their “buddies,” no limos pulling up to the red carpet, no magical Cinderella evening.
Instead, Faith UMC volunteers registered special needs guests ranging in age from 19 to 85 and emailed them a link to the event last week, along with a pre-video sent by the foundation “so that our guests could learn the Night to Shine Dance for the virtual event,” Hickom said.
For two hours before the virtual prom started, the church sponsored a “Shine Thru” so their guests could “pick up their gift bags with items to enjoy” during the online event, including crowns for the men and tiaras for the women, flowers, popcorn and a goody bag with Chick-fil-A gift cards, a Night to Shine ball cap and a tumbler, Hickom said.
After picking up their bags, they returned home to enjoy the two-hour virtual prom that the foundation presented.
Kelita Robinson, who has attended Night to Shine twice at Faith and once at Pleasant Valley Baptist in Rome, said she stopped by the church to pick up her "very nice" gift bag then went to dinner before watching the prom online.
"[I enjoyed] just the fun of going by and getting my tiara and going out to eat," she said.
The 25-year-old Cartersville resident, who usually dresses up every year for Night to Shine but "not this time," said the prom was fun, though she did "enjoy the in-person dancing more" at past events.
"[Having it online this year was] not as much fun but still nice," she said.
Hickom said not being able to have the popular event, which was the vision of the church’s pastor, the Rev. Charlie Marus, in person this time was “sad.”
“We are all disappointed that there was not the usual Night to Shine this year,” she said. “So many said they not only missed the preparation but missed sharing the night with our guests. We look forward to this every year, and to know that we were not able to provide this special event for our guests because of COVID-19 was hard to take.”
Church volunteers pull together to host the prom each year because it’s a “way to share the love of Christ with our guests,” Hickom said.
“It also provides a magical evening for our guests that they normally do not get to experience,” she said. “Any of our volunteers will tell you that we are the ones blessed by our guests. They show us the unconditional love we all need and want. They show us what pure joy is by their expressions. After three years, they have become a part of our family at Faith UMC. We see it as a win for everyone.”
Because the event wasn’t “live” this year, the number of volunteers and participants dropped dramatically, according to Hickom.
“This year, we had approximately 10 volunteers, compared to 150 last year,” she said. “We had 43 guests this year, compared to approximately 90 last year.”
The volunteers were “not really” able to do anything this year that they normally do for the special night, Hickom said.
“The only thing we were able to do was to provide our guests with gifts like we do every year,” she said. “The volunteers put together the gift bags and provided greetings and support during our Shine Thru at the church. We had a huge welcome display provided by Card My Yard. The owner, Tracey Martino, volunteered for the second year in a row to provide this.”
Due to the “generosity of our contributors in prior years,” the church was able to provide all the gift items this year “without having to ask for donations,” she added.
During a normal year, the volunteers also provide dinner and activities for their guests’ parents and caregivers, Hickom said.
“They really missed that this year,” she said. “We had several who said they were going to miss the bingo games. We were able to provide a gift card to them as a thank you for sharing their child with us for the special night.”
Hickom said the volunteers “hope to be back with an in-person event next year” if the church board decides to continue hosting it.
“If they do, the committee will begin to meet by August and hope to have our registration for guests and volunteers open by October,” she said.
Asked if she plans to attend next year's event at Faith, Robinson, a 2015 graduate of Cass High, said "certainly hope so."
Hickom said the church is “so thankful for the outpouring of support we receive from the community,” especially the “great financial support of many.”
“It takes a lot to carry out this event so we feel blessed with a community willing to give of their gifts, talent and time to support Night to Shine,” she said. “For the last three years, there have been many others who have offered their time and talent to make this event a huge success.”