Special guests light up the room at Night to Shine at Mount Zion

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It’s a night for people with special needs, ages 14 and older, to be kings and queens. They get their hair and makeup done, their pictures taken, they go for a limo ride and walk the red carpet into the dance, where they’re announced as the king or queen of the night.

Then they danced. And danced, and danced, and danced some more. They laughed and smiled and had a blast, grooving to song after song after song.

And nothing shined brighter Friday night than the faces of the 350 special guests at the Tim Tebow Night to Shine at Mount Zion United Methodist Church.

Garon Hidey never went to his prom, but he got to experience Friday night what he missed. The 28-year-old liked the limo ride the best, because it had a “nice, smooth ride,” he said.

He was at the dance with a group of friends from his house and feeling “happy and excited.”

His older sister, Rachel Harbin, danced alongside him, as did their father, Barry Hidey, who had spent the earlier part of the night getting the guests into the limousine rides.

“For some, it was the first time ever in a limo, they were full of joy and amazement,” Barry Hidey said.

He watched as his son glowed with happiness with his friends and others with special needs.

“For them to experience this…” Hidey said, his voice trailing off through tears. “They don’t get to go to prom, they don’t have a boyfriend or girlfriend drive them there in a limo.”

Harbin, manager of the Office of Disability Services for Harford County, said her brother grinned from the moment he walked in the door.

“We want our community to be a place like this, that accepts everybody and gives everybody a chance to feel this special all the time,”Harbin said. “We want people with disabilities to know they’re perfect the way they are and can be part of the community. We want them to feel so valued.”

Night to Shine

Night to Shine, sponsored by the Tim Tebow Foundation, is “an unforgettable prom night experience, centered on God’s love,” for people with special needs ages 14 and older, according to the foundation website. Tebow is a former Heisman Trophy winner as college football’s best player and NFL quarterback.

On Friday night, Mount Zion, through a grant from the foundation, joined more than 650 other churches across the world in hosting Night to Shine for approximately 100,000 honored guests through the support of 200,000 volunteers.

“It’s beautiful. It puts special needs front and center, it’s all about them. It’s absolute pure joy,” Brian Malcolm, one of the pastors at Mount Zion UM, said. “They are such beautiful people. Most people don’t take the time to get to know them, a lot of things aren’t designed for them. They’re not welcome at different places, they’re kind of shunned.”

Malcolm, who has been at Mount Zion since 2011, leads the Beyond Capernaum ministry at the church. It is designed to provide a safe environment for people with special needs to feel included, welcomed and loved, he said.

Serving 600 to 750 people, it’s the largest special needs ministry in the country, Malcolm said, offering five programs a week, including service projects, basketball, preaching and other activities.

The night wouldn’t happen without the hundreds of volunteers and family members and caregivers, who numbered about 500 people, Malcolm said.

A video message from Tebow drew thunderous applause from the crowd.

“It’s all about you. It’s because we love you, it’s because you matter, it’s because God has a great plan for your life,” Tebow said as he crowned everyone king or queen of the prom. “Congratulations!”

A special date

Gwendolyn Sansbury had a super special date Friday night — Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, whom she has a bit of a crush on.

The 18-year-old North Harford High School graduate said, a bit shyly, the night was special because “he’s here,” referring to Glassman.

She danced alongside Glassman and her buddy for the night, Stephanie Nay, a graphic design manager in the county’s Office of Governmental & Community Relations.

She also enjoyed getting her hair and makeup done and riding in the limo — her first time.

“She loves coming to these and dressing up,” Gwendolyn’s mom, Gretchen Lehnert, said. “I think they’re wonderful, getting kids and adults in the same place to go with no judgment and they can be who they want to be.”

Mike Raidt and Becky Reisler said they’re getting married in two years, and only had eyes for each other as they danced to a slow song.

Raidt had been to similar dances before, but it was Reisler’s first time.

“I love it,” she said.

The best thing for Raidt?

“She’s standing right here next to me,” he said with an enormous smile on his face.

Reisler, who was wearing a red dress with her hair and makeup done, said she likes to look pretty for her boyfriend.

High school sweethearts

Across the room, Hannah Abbe and Ben Cunningham danced together on the stage.

The couple have been friends since elementary school — Abbe is in 10th grade and Cunningham in 11th at C. Milton Wright High School. It was their second year together at Night to Shine.

As Cunningham planted a kiss on Hannah, her grandmother, Barbara Brown, laughed and said “last year he asked us permission!”

After they get married in two years, Cunningham said they plan to “move to California, it’s far away.”

Brown said the event was “really wonderful and very inclusive.”

“They’re really special and have a lot to give,” Brown said. “[Hannah] is a blessing. She’s probably the best thing to ever happen to our family.”

Candice Doehring was at the dance with her fiance, Richard Fuggi.

“I love it, I do,” Fuggi said.

“It’s really a special occasion to get dressed up,” Deohring said.

Mike and Lisa Cornett, of Darlington, watched as their son, Michael Cornett Jr., who goes by Mikey, danced to his favorite song, “Footloose.”

“The DJ played it for me,” Mikey said.

“You can’t ask for a better time for them,” Mike Cornett said.

Lisa Cornett said it’s awesome the dance is put on every year.

“I like to see the excitement on his face,” she said about her son.

Alison Schraudner of Abingdon was at the dance with her mother, Cindy Burns.

She didn’t discriminate in which songs she danced to.

“I like them all,” Schraudner said.

Burns said the work done at Mount Zion with the special needs community is “so meaningful.”

“It feels a void nobody else does in the community,” Burns said. “As a parent and someone who works with special needs, it’s difficult to find an inclusive place where kids, young adults can be themselves.”

With outstretched hands, Jocelynn McFadden, 22, said “I feel great” and “so awesome” and “so beautiful” in her black dress with fancy hair and makeup.

She just wanted to dance, and that’s what she did all night long.

“This is wonderful,” her mom, Kim McFadden, said. “It gives people with disabilities a chance to be themselves, to be around other people with disabilities. In a place like this, they don’t seem like people with disabilities, they’re just like us.”

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