Last Feb. 7, James Barnes got all dressed up to go to the prom. On that same date this year, he changed clothes to look his best while waiting for the prom to come to him.
Volunteers made a special delivery Sunday to help Night to Shine guests prepare to spend this year’s prom night at home. Although COVID-19 prompted the Tim Tebow Foundation to move the event to a virtual format, the celebration for people with special needs will shine on.
Volunteers like Michele Mazey left Covenant United Methodist Church with prom favors to take to guests who will watch the online premiere of Tebow’s seventh annual Night to Shine. Each gift bag included a Bible, along with a crown or tiara for participants to wear Friday when they are all announced as prom king or queen.
“Just because they can’t have it like they normally do, we needed to try to figure out a way for their night to still be special,” Mazey said. “We need to let them know that they’re important and that no matter what is happening, they’re not going to be forgotten.”
Covenant is among 18 churches across the state to host the event, which last year included more than 100,000 guests and 200,000 volunteers at more than 700 churches worldwide.
Like last year’s prom, this one will include music, dancing and a video message from former NFL star Tebow, a popular Christian author and speaker. But formal attire is optional at this year’s event; guests can choose to view from home in their pajamas.
While some churches are hosting a “Shine-Thru” drive-through prom, co-coordinator Lisa Jordan said local organizers decided that would not be the best option for providing a front-row experience for all their guests, and hosting a socially distanced prom was not an option.
“They haven’t seen each other in over a year now, so I don’t know that all of them would comprehend,” Jordan said. “It’s hard to explain and for them to really comprehend some of the rules and regulations.”
Jordan, who teaches an arts class for special populations through the city’s Recreation and Parks Department, said the coronavirus pandemic has presented unique challenges to people with special needs. She has fielded numerous questions from those who fear that they are being excluded from activities they once loved because of something they have done.
“They think that they possibly did something or something really bad has happened and we can’t meet,” Jordan said. “Not all of them are able to understand COVID-19 and the fact that we can’t get together.
“They all feel left out. They feel like the whole world just turned the off switch and was like ‘OK, goodbye.’”
To help combat the isolation, Jordan has begun writing to her students and to other people with disabilities whom she has met through her son, Spencer, and the Exceptional Community Baseball League. Since August 2020, she has been mailing letters and activities sheets to more than 125 people each month.
“Last month my postage was $220,” she said, laughing. “It gets kind of costly, but this was the only way I could find.”
On Sunday, Jordan was able to make a few in-person deliveries, delivering Night to Shine souvenir sunglasses and strap bags to some residents of area group homes. She and Mazey sported sequins and faux fur that normally would have been reserved for prom night.
Pitt County Group Home resident Paul Bartlett remembers Mazey, who serves as lead adapted physical education teacher for Pitt County Schools, from last year’s prom. He has a picture in his room that shows the two of them on the dance floor.
Resident Duncan Shaw has fond memories of the white tuxedo he wore last year.
“It’s going to have to be a little different this year because of the virus,” he said. “There’s always next year.”
Addie Carmon, owner Evans Home, said some of her residents changed clothes in anticipation of their packages being delivered, so she expects they will want to dress up for Friday’s virtual prom as well.
“It means a lot because it gives them something to look forward to,” Carmon said. “They’re really excited about it even though they won’t be out dancing with everybody else, just to know that they are being recognized as having a prom.”
Residents tried on their crowns Sunday, posing for pictures with volunteers who had brought them. James Barnes clapped his hands as he discovered the sunglasses that were part of his gift box.
Although she was wearing a mask, it was evident that Mazey couldn’t stop smiling.
“I loved the personal touch of us going and visiting them,” she said. “Doing this was truly my best afternoon in a year because it was seeing them happy.”
Although the crowns and tiaras were identical to the ones they received at last year’s prom, none of the guests seemed to mind. Jordan said those are not the kinds of things they remember.
“They may not remember your name as a volunteer and they may not remember the things that you did for them but they’ll always remember the way you made them feel,” she said. “If we can give them back that feeling, or at least a fraction of that feeling that they remember from last year when they were crowned king and queen of the prom, that’s all that we were meant to do.”