By Steve Sears
18-year-old Reanna Fakhoury smiles broadly, recalling the moment vividly.
“The red carpet was really the best. All the volunteers, they gathered around, they clapped, they cheered, and as we walked out, they kind of were waving and high-fiving all of the guests, and everybody gets a crown – everybody!”
Tiaras for all the ladies, crowns for all the boys and men. Tim Tebow, whose ministry founded the now world-wide “Night to Shine” prom event, even announces it via video: “It’s my honor to crown each one of you King and Queen of the prom.”
“Heaven. Getting along, celebrating,” says Reverend Kenneth Sherman, Pastor of Saint Ann Melkite Catholic Church in Woodland Park, where the second annual “Night to Shine” prom was held on Friday evening, February 8th. “People getting along and celebrating God’s love.”
“It’s a gift,” says Doreen Pierson, who along with Joann Fakhoury and Debbie Caruso, planned the evening for all the guests.
Fakhoury, who first approached Pierson with the idea for the initial prom for 2018, says she couldn’t have done it alone. “There’s the three of us, then we have decorating, we have food, flowers.”
Courtesy of the website, “Night to Shine” is a national, Tim Tebow-initiated organization event (www.timtebowfoundation.org/ministries/night-to-shine) that “is an unforgettable prom night experience, centered on God’s love, for people with special needs ages 14 and older.” This year, almost 700 proms took place worldwide.
The evening started at 5:00 p.m. with hair and makeup; a pop-up shop hair stylist was on-site. There was also a pop-up shop for men’s’ and ladies’ evening wear at the church three weeks prior to the event, the guests selecting their attire for the evening.
Fakhoury first discovered the wonderful event in 2017. “Because she (Reanna) is special needs, she goes to a special needs school, she belongs to gymnastics, she swims, so one of the moms said she was sending her daughter to this prom, and at that time it was in (Liquid Church) Parsippany. We signed her up, my husband (George) and I took her because we didn’t just want to leave her there, we didn’t know anybody. We were able to stay, we went downstairs and had dinner while she went in and enjoyed the evening.”
Also at the event that evening was another familiar face who brought the Fakhoury’s upstairs and wanted them to see where is was. “When it started,” says George, “he looked at me and said, ‘I know you’ and I said, ‘And I know you.’ He was one of the helpers at the event. He said he would take me in the back way to show me what’s going on because the parents were not allowed to go in. He took us around backstage and we were watching, and we were amazed what was going on in that room.”
“We walked in on the Tim Tebow video,” says Joann. “They had their big screen TV with Tim Tebow on it, and they (the guests) were cheering and I was amazed that they even knew who he was. Bu they were all dancing around and cheering for him. When we were downstairs, we talked to another parent, the parishioners all came over and introduced themselves, and I just thought it was just a great thing. At our parish, we’re a family parish, and I just wanted to do it.”
“Two years ago, Joann presented it to me,” says Rev. Sherman. “I said, ‘That sounds good to me.” There is a 92-page manual of instructions to follow to put on the prom. It deterred the small committee none. “It’s overwhelming but very thorough, but everybody came through very well from background checks to color-coordination to…everything. It’s very down to the precise instruction.”
The prom is important to Reanna and others with special needs. “They don’t have much of a social life,” says Joann. “Many of them as they get older, they don’t go to school anymore, and nobody really offers anything to them. ”
“It’s not just young ones,” says Rev. Sherman. “Tell about the oldest,” he says to Joann.
“Our oldest is 70 years old,” says Joann. You must be 14 to attend the prom, and there is no age ceiling. “This becomes socialization for them other than their sports and things like that. And I’ll tell you that older group, that Clifton group (The Clifton Adult Opportunity Center), they’re happy to be there, because they’re in a facility all the time.”
“It’s really a night,” says Pierson, “that’s all about them, and not about us, but we get more out of it than they do.”
“But they are amazing,” says Joann.
“We don’t get to give of ourselves very often,” says Pierson, reflecting on how the evening benefits all. “Usually you’re always giving something, but you’re always expecting something in return. This is an opportunity where we give, not expecting something in return, and the amount of love that you get back is remarkable. It takes you to a different place.” Joann and her team hear the words, too. “Every volunteer that we have – and this is two years now – say ‘This is the most unbelievable, special night of my life. I will do it again.’ And nobody pays for anything. All of our volunteers…we ask for something, they give it, without question.”
93 special needs guests attended the prom, and the total number of volunteers was 197. “Even our teenagers,” Joann says, “they come because they need their community service hours. All of our volunteers aren’t there just to serve them; they’re supposed to enjoy the night with them, to be their friends.”
Per Joann, antennae are already turned towards the 2020 prom, even though the wrap up of the 2019 one is still going. “We’re actually not finished with this event yet,” she says with a laugh, saying post-prom bookkeeping is still ongoing. She then mentions it all starts with figuring out costs. “We have to start with a budget. Debbie is my money person; we sat together, and we figured out how much things would be, and they give you an outline of a (suggested) budget.”
“They do very well,” says Rev. Sherman. “Last year the Tim Tebow Foundation financed the majority of it, and you,” he says to Joann, “did raise money which we had left over, so that this year we were self-funded, we didn’t take any money from the foundation. For year two I think that’s great.”
The emotional, mental, and physical involved effort and pulling off the event is time consuming, but Joann doesn’t see it that way. “I never thought of it that way. I love working for my church – I’ve been there all my life – so I think its just part of my life and I just think when I can give back and – you see, I’m in the special needs world, and it’s one of the best worlds to be in. For me to bring that world into the world that I also love, gave me the opportunity to give back to our parish, too, because it’s such a great place to be. Even the parents, we all share so much.”
At Saint Ann Melkite Catholic Church, says Rev. Sherman, there’s a deep sense of community. “Plus, their ancestors founded the parish. Next year it will be 100 years, and it gives the parish a chance to give back to the community. As Doreen was saying, it’s a chance to serve others. Sometimes you get so caught up in serving each other within the parish, but this was a good opportunity to serve others outside the community and outside the parish.”
“I’m the Chief Mechanical Officer,” says George Fakhoury with a laugh. “I’m CMO – mechanical and electrical officer. A solutions provider. I do some decorations, layouts – what works, what doesn’t work – come up with different ideas.” As for gym preparation for the event, he says it takes about two weeks for it to be ready.
“It’s not just the gym,” say Pierson. “There’s the whole hall, there’s classrooms, and there’s so many things that have to occur. The layout just getting into the building, he has to handle all of that.”
One challenge for the first year was there was no wheelchair access. George came up with the solution: add a special
door entrance. “We had to do some sort of wheelchair access. There was none.”
Reanna has many fond memories of the 2019 “Night to Shine” prom, especially the DJ starting a conga line for the guests, and the police officers joining the line and also doing the limbo. “The dancing was just awesome, the music was awesome, the confetti part was just awesome. I think it was just amazing the way it worked out so perfectly.” Reanna and other guests arrived via party bus.
The question is often raised: why not a twice a year prom? “I had some one come up to me and she said, and it was her first time there, ‘We should have this twice a year,’” says George. “‘Why are we having it just once a year?’”
“We had talked about that. Remember we had said we should do something in the summer time to keep that feeling going and keep that community together?” says Pierson, posing the question to Joann.
Rev. Sherman sums it up. “The guests and their buddies enjoy it but, I noticed this last year and it was the same thing this year, especially parents who were there the first time this year. ‘Thank you for doing this for my child. And we have no idea who you are but thank you for doing this,’ they say. I tell them, ‘Well, we just do it because we want to be Christ-like in our lives, and if you’re a stranger that’s okay, and if you’re a parishioner that’s okay, too.’ They say, ‘But you don’t even know us.’ And I say, ‘That’s okay.’”
There is lots of joy shared throughout , as well as a lot of tears (“Yes, a lot of tears,” says Rev. Sherman).
It was a memorable evening for all.
“They (those with special needs) don’t realize,” adds Joann Fakhoury, “how much love they have inside of them. To them, they just give it. It just comes so easy to them. We think too much with our heads. They think with their hearts.”