When we think of Valentine’s Day, it’s easy for our minds to drift to thoughts of love shared between spouses or romantic significant others. We’re quick to picture hearts, flowers, and chocolates. But what about the love that is shared between a parent and child? Or the love shared between friends?
Or what about the love shared between a community and its citizens? That’s the kind of love Leann Henkel saw when her son Blake attended A Night to Shine at First Baptist Church in High Point. When Leann first heard about A Night to Shine she was skeptical. The event, hosted in partnership with the Tim Tebow Foundation at more than 200 churches worldwide, is a prom for students and adults who are differently abled or who have special needs.
“We’d never been to A Night to Shine event before,” Leann explains. Her son, Blake is twenty-seven and is a local High Point artist with autism. Although she had seen other Night to Shine events hosted in the Triad over the years, she worried that Blake might not enjoy an event with a big crowd and lots of loud activity.
“I was jealous of all the pictures I’d seen of my friends taking their kids, but I would think, ‘That isn’t quite right for Blake.’”
But when the Henkels heard from one of Blake’s art classes at the Arc of High Point that First Baptist Church would host the first High Point-based Night to Shine, with less than a hundred prom guests in attendance, she decided it was time to give it a try.
“The check-in was easy,” Leann says, as she describes Blake picking out his boutonniere and riding in the on-site limousine around the block, before arriving at the prom. “When they announce the guests, that’s when their buddy comes out.”
Blake’s buddy, Jamie, was a volunteer whose sole purpose that evening was to make sure Blake felt safe, comfortable, and of course, had the time of his life. Each of the 75 guests in attendance were given their own personal buddy.
Once inside, Leann found out about the Respite Room, a space dedicated to giving parents and caregivers for their own night of relaxation. The room, complete with food, movies, mani/pedis, games, and even an on-site massage therapist, was available throughout the evening. But, like many parents, Leann wasn’t quite ready to relax.
“I’m over here freaking out, thinking, ‘I’m going to have to go downstairs and sit,’” Leann says. She explains that many parents of individuals with special needs are often afraid of trusting someone else with their children.
“Every parent has a different comfort level with the supervision of their loved one,” Leann says. “We often have a mentality that no one can care for our children like we can.” But Leann noticed that printed on the back of Blake’s name tag was her cell phone number so that Jamie could contact Leann at any point should the need arise.
“After a little while his buddy texted me some pictures,” Leann says. “He was smiling ear-to-ear. It was a genuine smile, and I knew he was having a good time. At that point I said, ‘Okay, now I can relax.’”
And who made A Night to Shine in High Point possible? Well, that story starts back in 2019, with Michela Chapman. Michela, a high school student who attends First Baptist, who had the idea to host a prom for students and adults from High Point’s special needs community. Through brainstorming and research, Jennifer Campbell, minister of children and families at FBC, came across the Night to Shine program.
While other churches in the Triad had hosted the event before, A Night to Shine had never happened in High Point. FBC applied to the Tim Tebow Foundation and learned, midway through November 2019, that they had been accepted as A Night to Shine host – leaving roughly two months for the church to pull off an event hosting more than 200 guests from all over the state.
So, Jennifer turned to a trusted church member with plenty of event and fundraising experience: Cover the City’s, Amanda Anderson.
“It was the first time it had ever been done in High Point,” Amanda says of the event, “and when I was told we had 60 days to pull this off, I got on the phone, and said, ‘Alright here we go, what can you do?’”
Within weeks, Amanda and FBC were overwhelmed by the outpouring of support and commitment they saw from the community. They needed more than 300 volunteers to make the event a reality, as well as quite a few resource donations.
“People just gave their yes,” Amanda says. “I didn’t even have to explain what it was…They just said, ‘Yep, I’ll do it. What’s the date?”
Before long, Amanda and her team had local High Point volunteers, businesses, and public servants ready to donate their time and resources. In that group of volunteers were 30 High Point police officers, a paramedic from Piedmont Triad Ambulance Rescue, two EMTs, two cardiologists, and even occupational therapists supervising and leading in the Sensory Room, a space equipped with dim lights, quieter activities and noise canceling headphones in case any guests became overstimulated or overwhelmed. Each volunteer donated his or her time and skills to ensure that every guest and family member was cared for throughout the event.
The Vietnamese Baptist Church also partnered with FBC to donate food and time for set-up and clean-up. Cheerleaders, the dance team, and mascots from High Point University came to line the red carpet to cheer on each guest’s arrival. Southern Roots, the Blue Group, Sweet Shoppe Bakery, and Chick-Fil-A all donated food and catering services to the event. With more than 300 volunteers and over $35,000 in in-kind donations, A Night to Shine had no shortage of helping hands to make it a reality.
““For me that just shows the true love of High Point,” Amanda says. “For people from across the state to experience what High Point is, and how giving and loving it is, that’s really important.”
And like Blake, every guest in attendance was assigned a buddy for the evening, someone who, as Amanda put it, “would be a friend to be with them throughout the night and show them the love that God so freely gives us all.”
Amanda admits that close to the end of the planning period, she was anxious that there wouldn’t be enough buddy volunteers for the event. “I sent out probably 20 emails to more than a hundred different people,” Amanda says. “And people all over the place stepped up…that’s where the high schools came in.”
Around 75 high school students volunteered in some capacity at A Night to Shine. Students from Southwest Guilford High School, High Point Central, and the North Carolina Leadership Academy all joined in, excited to serve families in their community. Amanda jokes that she thought some of the high school volunteers had more fun at this event than they did at their own prom.
“Those volunteers gave our guests love and laughter and fun and truly treated them as equals,” Amanda says.
“It was heartwarming to see all the faces there from the community – new faces that I didn’t know from the special needs community,” Leann adds. “Just the way they embraced our population, our kids…I hope those people come away with the realization that our kids are just like everybody else.…they just enjoy things a little bit differently.”
Leann reflects on her own son’s experience and purpose, both at A Night to Shine and in life. She pushes back against people who cite her son as an inspiration. Leann and Blake would rather people recognize that at his core, Blake is a person living his life, building relationships, and using his skills just like they are.
Both Leann and Amanda share the hope that the outpouring of love, celebration, and friendship shared between the guests and volunteers at A Night to Shine wouldn’t be the end of a discussion about inclusion for our special needs community, but rather, the beginning.
“We hope this is the catalyst that it will start a conversation in High Point, and within First Baptist, of establishing a special needs ministry,” Amanda says.
“Inclusion is important for our family members to feel part of their community and for the community to see our children for what they are – human,” Leann says. “Everyone deserves the right to live in their own community and do the things that make them happy – special needs individuals included.”
“I hope that families will continue to feel the love the community gave them that evening and that they will feel more comfortable taking their family members out into the community to experience other events knowing that people care about them,” Leann concludes. “I hope that this event sparks an interest in the volunteers and sponsors that they may find more opportunities to interact with our special needs individuals knowing that we are all more alike than different.”
Because it’s in those moments of recognizing all the ways we are alike, that we can finally celebrate our differences. It’s in those moments when we embrace exactly who our neighbors were each made to be – people with special gifts, stories to tell, and a purpose to live out – that we encounter what it means to truly love our community. And we think that love is worth celebrating all year long.
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Feature Image by Lindley Battle Photography