Leah Abell, second from right, dances with volunteer buddy Chuck Mitchell during a previous Night to Shine. Life Community Church hosts this red carpet and prom event every year for the special needs community at the Owensboro Convention Center. The 2021 event will go virtual due to the coronavirus outbreak.

For the fifth year in a row, Life Community Church is bringing the glitz and glamour of a VIP-party atmosphere to the local special needs community for one night through Night to Shine in 2021. But instead of hosting the event at its usual venue, the Owensboro Convention Center, it’s going virtual.

Night to Shine is a prom created exclusively for the special needs population. It began in 2014 by the Tim Tebow Foundation, whose mission is “to bring faith, hope and love to those needing a brighter day in their darkest hour of need,” according to their website. Six years later, the event has grown worldwide with more than 215,000 volunteers from 720 churches around the U.S., as well as 34 countries and 36 different denominations hosting the event.

Life Community Church Associate Pastor of Student Ministries Jason Nichols said the event usually happens the Friday night before Valentine’s Day but the 2021 event will be virtual due to the coronavirus outbreak.

In past years, the participants would dress to the nines in tuxedos and dresses and head to the convention center. From there, they would have their own red carpet event complete with flashing cameras from the local paparazzi. The church would then have volunteers from the community shine their shoes and style their hair before coupling them with another volunteer — called buddies — to act as their prom date. Together, each pair would head to the photo booth to get their picture taken before congregating with others to dance, eat and mingle.

When the night was over, former NFL quarterback Tim Tebow would send out a message about the prom, and then each participant was either crowned queen or king of prom before leaving with a framed picture of themselves, Nichols said.

And the entire experience was free for both participants and their caregivers.

“It just gives them a chance to feel special at a time where a lot of those special needs people have not been able to experience such a thing like a prom like everybody else does,” he said.

It’s been so successful that the 175 guest spots get booked every year with a long waiting list following because of how special the event is to the special needs community.

“You see them come through the door. They’re smiling, they’re laughing. Some of them, they go up to the red carpet to go into the prom room. People are cheering for them, and some of them will actually turn around and come back down the red carpet just to do it once again so they can have more people clap for them,” Nichols said.

And the best responses that have reached Nichols is when he’s talking with the parents or caregivers, and they’re thanking him for making their child feel special for the night.

“I’ve had story after story of those who just thank us, (because) their child was not able to do this when they were in school. To them, it just means everything to them and to their children,” he said.

While the 2021 event is still free, the church is making adjustments due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Instead of having the event at the convention center, Nichols said the church is going to host a Shine-Thru drive-through event in mid-January. During the event, the participants will be able to pick up a box that will be packed with the usual party favors and a crown or tiara for the kings and queens of the prom to enjoy during Night to Shine on Feb. 12.

In addition to this, Nichols said the participants will get to take home a meal that the church will provide for them before they attend the prom virtually from their homes and dance the night away.

One participant who has enjoyed the past four years of Night to Shine is 23-year-old Leah Abell, who has cerebral palsy.

She said she loves going to the event every year because it’s very easy to interact with people, and it’s very accessible to the wheelchairs in the convention center. But with the event going virtual next year, Leah Abell said she will miss interacting with the volunteer buddies the most.

Her father, Ronnie Abell, said while the virtual event isn’t ideal, the family is still very thankful that the church will still be hosting it.

“She’s going to do everything that she would do if we were going in person. We’re going to dress up and the whole nine yards,” he said.

During that time, Ronnie Abell said the family’s going to try to do some of what Leah would normally do at the convention center, but they won’t be able to match it all because of how unique the church has set it up in past events.

But whether Night to Shine is in person or virtual, it’s one night of fun and festivities for the special needs community to celebrate who they are.

“It’s easy for the world to just pass by and not recognize people with special needs. I think that happens a lot,” Ronnie Abell said. “This is their night. That’s why they named it Night to Shine. It’s their night to have fun, and it’s all about them.”

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