Dancing up a storm at Night To Shine

Messenger photos by Dedra Cordle
Ben Allour of London and Olivia Dickey of Lancaster were among the kings and queens honored at Night To Shine, a prom experience hosted by Madison County Vineyard and London First United Methodist Church. Allour and Dickey are longtime friends but have not been able to meet in person for several years. They both said they were excited to be at the event and experience the festivities together.

(Posted Feb. 13, 2024)

By Dedra Cordle, Staff Writer

Seated at a table near the dance floor at Madison County Vineyard Church in London, Gayla Heckel watched the action unfold with tears in her eyes and a soft smile spread across her face.

In her direct line of sight was her younger brother, Mike Zbleski, her son, Fred, and her daughter-in-law, Fritzi, all dancing up a storm and having the time of their lives as part of a jubilant crowd.

“I feel like my heart might burst from happiness right now,” she said.

Heckel and her family members were among the guests taking part in Night To Shine on Feb. 9, an event designed to give an unforgettable prom night experience to individuals with special needs.

Growing up in Wisconsin in the 1950s, Heckel said there were no social functions designed for differently abled people such as her brother, Mike.

“I don’t think society really thought of things like that back then,” she stated. “I don’t remember any places where he could go to interact with other people like him, and I don’t remember any places where he could go so others could discover how much of a sweetheart he is.”

Janet Messer and Mike Zbleski share a dance at Night To Shine.

She said she believes that lack of connection made life a little harder on her “baby brother.”

“He has always been so social, always wanting to get out there and make friends,” she added. “But sometimes people were not so willing to be as nice to him as he was to them.”

What makes Heckel feel optimistic about the world today, she said, is that it seems as if cultural attitudes toward individuals with special needs are evolving for the better.

“There seems to be more acceptance of people like my brother which is a good thing,” she said.

She also said her family could not have landed in a better spot when they relocated to Madison County.

“They are so supportive of the special needs community here,” she said. “The local board [for developmental disabilities] is very active, and they have Special Olympics which allows people like Mike to get out there and have fun with his crowd.”

Heckel said she would like to see more social gatherings like Night To Shine.

It’s Macarena time for the honored guests and community volunteers at Night To Shine.

“It means so much to be here, to see this,” she said, as she watched her 74-year-old brother dance with new friends while dressed to the nines. “I hope it will be back next year, too.”

The local residents who organized the prom night experience said the event was so well received, their intention is to repeat it.

“I think we have to at this point,” quipped Melinda Scott, a member of London First United Methodist Church, who co-organized the event with Madison County Vineyard Missions and Outreach Pastor Cindy Taylor. “We might be the most hated people in the county if we didn’t try to do it again!”

This marked the first time churches in Madison County have hosted Night To Shine, a movement sponsored by the Tim Tebow Foundation. Founder Tim Tebow, a former collegiate and professional quarterback and a devout Christian, started the event in 2014 as a way to show children and other individuals with special needs that they are cherished and loved. Since then, hundreds of churches around the world have hosted Night To Shine, honoring more than 7,000 “kings and queens” who have attended the events.

Night To Shine’s honored guests were greeted by cheers from the “paparazzi” as they entered the gymnasium.

Scott said she and Taylor had always wanted to see Night To Shine come to Madison County and decided to take matters into their own hands.

“Cindy and I had been talking about it for years, and we finally decided to bite the bullet,” Scott said.

Planning started to take shape last year in the hallways of London Elementary School. Scott, a second-grade teacher at the school, struck up a conversation about the topic with Taylor, a substitute teacher for the district.

The discussion revolved around the news that the Tim Tebow Foundation had just opened up grant opportunities for religious organizations to host Night To Shine.

“I had this wild idea that the church where I am a member–London First United Methodist Church–should team up with Madison County Vineyard to throw this prom night experience for our beloved special needs community,” Scott explained. “I didn’t know if it would work out, but I thought it wouldn’t hurt to try.”

With the approval of the two local churches, Scott and Taylor submitted an application to the foundation with a request to host the county’s very first Night To Shine on Feb. 9, 2024. Within weeks, they received an email stating they were the recipients of a $6,500 grant to host the inclusive event.

“We were beyond thrilled,” said Scott. “And then came the nerves.”

Rebekah Hitzeman of Springfield poses on the red carpet.

Although the Tim Tebow Foundation provides each host church with an official Night To Shine planning manual and personalized guidance and support from a Tim Tebow Foundation staff member, Scott said she had no idea how stressful it would be to plan an event like this.

“I think I was more nervous for this prom than my own,” she joked.

She said she worried that local businesses would not donate time to provide hair and makeup services or goods for the swag bags. She worried that individuals who were more adept at decorating event centers and light staging and DJ planning would vanish off the face of the Earth. She worried the community would not volunteer to be chaperones and dates and the cheering section. She worried the special needs community would not want to come.

As it turned out, she had no reason to worry. More than 10 local businesses donated food, prizes, and hair and makeup services, and more than 10 local residents stepped forward to help with decorating, light staging, and DJ services.

Granville resident Jacob Baltisberger smiles for the camera.

When it came to the three-hour main event on Feb. 9 in the gymnasium at Madison County Vineyard, more than 50 volunteers were on hand to cheer on the special guests, as well as volunteer as chaperones, dates, and dance partners. More than 20 individuals ages 14 and older with special needs and different abilities tore up the dance floor and made new friends in the process.

The kings and queens in attendance said they felt adored and supported.

“This has been such a wonderful night, a wonderful experience,” said Kendra Chapman as she took a short break from dancing the night away with her boyfriend, Brandon North.

Hayden Thomas, a sophomore at Madison-Plains High School, spins around the dance floor with his mother, Angela Thomas.
Crowns and tiaras were presented at the end of the night to all attendees.
Brandon North and his girlfriend, Kendra Chapman, slow dance to Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable.” The couple from London and Plain City, respectively, met while playing bocce with the Madison County Special Olympics.
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