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The Royal Treatment
by Emily Merrell, photography by Amy Long

On Feb. 9, adults from Northeast Arkansas with special needs will put on their snazziest outfits and head to Fellowship Jonesboro for a magical evening.

Like most proms, the night will include hair and makeup, a limo ride, posing for plenty of photos to commemorate the occasion, a delicious meal, dancing the night away with good company and a crowning ceremony. Unlike most proms, though, at the end of Night to Shine, every guest will be crowned a king or queen. The Tim Tebow Foundation, Fellowship Church and hundreds of volunteers want them to know that God sees them as kings and queens every day.

Co-chairs of Night to Shine Susan Smith and Ashley Spencer are passionate about improving the lives of people with special needs in their professional and personal lives. Both Smith and Spencer work as occupational therapists and have been involved for many years with a small group called the Barnabas Group at their church, Fellowship Jonesboro.

“Our small group name has been the Barnabas Group, because Barnabas means ‘Son of Encourager,’ said Smith. “So, we had a group that our motive and purpose was to help other special needs people and families be on mission, basically. And with that we did a variety of big events over the years.

“We had a big Christian concert—about 500 people attended, and we had a lot of special needs people there. And then we did a big Farm-to-Table Feast for people with special needs and their families, and it was a beautiful thing. We did beautiful tables, and our church and small group decorated tables and served. We did a wheelchair drive and collected hundreds of wheelchairs and sent them to third world countries. Then, last year, we did a barn dance for special needs adults.”

Smith said that after so many successful events with the Barnabas Group, she and Spencer were praying about what kind of project to take on next. That’s when they learned about Tim Tebow Foundation’s “Night to Shine” event, a prom night experience for adults with special needs held in 375 churches in all 50 states and 11 countries. To host a Night to Shine event, churches must be approved by the Tim Tebow Foundation. Although Smith and Spencer knew that most of the churches hosting the event are much bigger than Fellowship Jonesboro, they felt led to send in an application.

“Most of the churches that get selected are really big churches, but we had a history of serving in the community, and they saw us as somebody who would continue to serve special needs people. So we made application, and we were approved,” said Smith.

From there, the Tim Tebow Foundation sent them a hefty manual full of guidelines and procedures for how to delegate planning committees and organize the many facets of Night to Shine.

“Everything we do we comes under the auspices of the Tim Tebow Foundation,” said Smith. “We have to follow these guidelines, and with that, you don’t have to think outside the box because it’s done for you. It’s pretty high accountability, and they want them all consistent; they want it done with excellence, and they want it all on the same night throughout the world.”

When guests arrive at Night to Shine in Jonesboro or around the world, they will first have their hair and makeup done by volunteers and receive corsages and boutonnieres. After some time to get glamorous, the kings and queens will enjoy a limousine ride to the red carpet, where paparazzi will be waiting to snap some photos and cheer them on as they enter Night to Shine. Then, guests will have dinner, dancing and activity stations such as a shoeshine, photo booths and karaoke. At the crowning ceremony, Miss Arkansas Maggie Benton will be present to crown all of the kings and queens and help them celebrate with a balloon drop. There will be a room for guests’ families and caregivers to hang out separately, as well as a sensory room for guests who might find the evening a little too overwhelming at times. Each attendee will get to enjoy the festivities with the help of their very own buddy.

“We have a committee of buddies who are being trained by the staff of The Learning Center,” said Smith. “We still need more buddies, actually. As the guests come in and go to the registration table, they can either come with their own buddy, which is either a friend, parent or caregiver, or they can be assigned to one, and then that buddy will take them to all the stations and be there with them. … We also have floaters who will serve as buddies, and they will come up and maybe cut in to dance and change up the dance partner and things like that.”

Smith and Spencer especially hope to reach adults with special needs who don’t have many opportunities to attend fun activities like dances.

“I have a disabled daughter who’s 37, and so I have a special heart for the one who really isn’t in an adult day program, isn’t in school anymore and really doesn’t have as many social outlets,” said Smith. “Our verse has been Matthew 25:40: ‘Whatever you do to the least of these you have done for me.’ So, we’re constantly reminding ourselves and reminding our volunteers that this is how you serve the Lord. And when He talks about the least of these, He’s talking about believers.

“We’re always supposed to go out into the world and help the poor and the needy and all of that, but that particular verse is talking about believers, and that’s because He dwells within them. It is amazing—the overwhelming majority of these special needs adults are believers. God has just been able to go into their spirit. So, He is saying, ‘I dwell within this person and therefore what you do for them, you are doing for me. And what you choose not to do for them, you are choosing not to do for me.’ So I would say that’s our real passion. That’s what He’s commanded us to do, and He has a special love for them.”

The Barnabas Group has been amazed by the outpouring of volunteers from all over the area who have signed up to help with Night to Shine. At this time, their biggest need is monetary donations of any amount to help cover the cost of EMT services which will be on-hand during the event, limousine services, food, decorations and other expenses. Anyone interested can make a tax-exempt donation by visiting fellowshipjonesboro.com/nighttoshine.

Night to Shine will be held Feb. 9 from 6-9 p.m. at Fellowship Jonesboro, 1801 Woodsprings Road. The event is free for adults with special needs, but they must register ahead of time at fellowshipjonesboro.com/nighttoshine.