‘It just kind of trans­forms your kid’

Night to Shine prom event pro­vides a spe­cial oc­ca­sion for peo­ple of spe­cial needs

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - FRONT PAGE - BY HOLLY PRESTIDGE

Her dark hair curled in pretty waves, Atlee High School stu­dent Brenna Fennelly perched in the makeup seat and took off her glasses. Soon, her blue eyes popped as shim­mery shadow was ap­plied to her eye­lids and her lips were painted ruby red — on pur­pose, to match the red flow­ers on her dress.

She and oth­ers were getting the full pam­pered treat­ment — hair and makeup — by the stylists at Lou Stevens Stu­dios. This was their spe­cial night and it was just be­gin­ning.

More than 1,400 peo­ple from all over metro Rich­mond cel­e­brated the fifth an­nual Night to Shine on Fri­day night at the Al­tria The­atre. Started by the Tim Te­bow Foun­da­tion, Night to Shine is a prom event for peo­ple with spe­cial needs, ages 14 and up, and or­ga­nized by lo­cal churches.

Ac­cord­ing to the foun­da­tion’s web­site, more than 600 churches

held proms across the coun­try Fri­day night, in­volv­ing 100,000 guests and 200,000 vol­un­teers.

In Rich­mond, it was a night of din­ner and danc­ing and walk­ing the red car­pet, limo rides and car­i­ca­ture por­traits, karaoke on the Al­tria stage and pho­tos — lots and lots of pho­tos. Each spe­cial­needs guest was paired with a buddy for the evening.

Four­teen churches were be­hind the event, in­clud­ing Me­chan­icsville’s Grace Com­mu­nity Pres­by­te­rian Church. Grace Com­mu­nity pas­tor Clint Dowda, decked out in a red-and­white heart-cov­ered suit, said the night is all about pro­vid­ing an ex­pe­ri­ence for spe­cial needs in­di­vid­u­als “where they’re cel­e­brated and hon­ored and rec­og­nized for the value they have as peo­ple, as God’s cre­ations.”

Par­tic­i­pat­ing churches raise money for Night to Shine or some­times re­ceive grants from the Tim Te­bow Foun­da­tion. Dowda said many in his con­gre­ga­tion are ded­i­cated to work­ing with the spe­cial-needs com­mu­nity, so “we saw it as a night to all come to­gether around the re­gion and cel­e­brate.”

The first three years, Night to Shine was held at West End Pres­by­te­rian Church, but as the event grew in pop­u­lar­ity, or­ga­niz­ers needed a large venue that was cen­trally lo­cated. Plus, at the Al­tria The­atre, there was the “wow fac­tor,” Dowda said, and “for our guests and our bud­dies and our vol­un­teers, it feels like it fits the night.”

Mid­way through the night, Fennelly and her buddy, fel­low Atlee stu­dent Marly Ro­ken­brod, stood in line to get prom pic­tures. This is the third year they’ve been paired to­gether. Ro­ken­brod said there are a lot of vol­un­teers from her school who par­tic­i­pate in Night to Shine.

“The first year they just put us to­gether — we didn’t even know each other,” she said about be­ing paired with Fennelly, though she said she asked to be paired to­gether last year and this year. “I think its a re­ally fun op­por­tu­nity to serve and to hang out with friends like Brenna.”

On the the­ater’s up­per bal­conies, as fes­tiv­i­ties hap­pened be­low, par­ents and care­givers who stayed for the du­ra­tion of the three-hour event could grab some­thing to eat and re­lax as their son or daugh­ter par­tied the night away.

One of those par­ents, Glen Allen res­i­dent Becca Cle­venger, sat with her mother, Chris Mitchell. Cle­venger’s daugh­ter, Amanda, was some­where else, likely hav­ing the time of her life. It’s the sec­ond year they’ve at­tended Night to Shine. She de­scribed last year as “over­whelm­ing” — but in the best way pos­si­ble.

“I don’t even think my prom was this nice,” Cle­venger joked, but turned se­ri­ous when de­scrib­ing her sur­prise at just how spe­cial the ex­pe­ri­ence was for her daugh­ter and the hun­dreds of other hon­ored guests.

“The feel­ing of joy and love that you felt — just like I felt this year, ev­ery­body was so nice and so kind,” she said.

“They smile a lit­tle big­ger and they feel spe­cial,” she said about her own daugh­ter but also the many oth­ers in at­ten­dance. “It just kind of trans­forms your kid a lit­tle bit.”

“Ev­ery­body was so nice and so kind . ... They smile a lit­tle big­ger and they feel spe­cial. It just kind of trans­forms your kid a lit­tle bit.” Becca Cle­venger, Glen Allen par­ent

DANIEL SANGJIB MIN/TIMES-DIS­PATCH

Brenna Fennelly of Hanover (cen­ter left) walked on a red car­pet with Marly Ro­ken­brod, a buddy and vol­un­teer, as Fennelly was in­tro­duced at the Night to Shine event at the Al­tria The­atre in Rich­mond on Fri­day.

Martha Wooten (left) of Hen­rico County grinned as she watched her daugh­ter, Emma, 15, get her makeup done by Me­gan Nosse, a hair stylist and makeup artist, at Glam Squad to pre­pare for Fri­day’s Night to Shine event.

DANIEL SANGJIB MIN/TIMES-DIS­PATCH

Re­becca Jones danced with Ben Ford, a buddy and vol­un­teer, at the Al­tria The­atre dur­ing the Night to Shine event. “I don’t even think my prom was this nice,” said one of the par­ents, Glen Allen res­i­dent Becca Cle­venger.

Rachel DeLille of Ash­land sang on the stage of the Al­tria The­atre dur­ing the Night to Shine event on Fri­day.

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