DECATUR — It's been said that prom is a "night to remember," and on Friday, Damien Evans got to experience it for the first time.
Looking dapper in a dress shirt and tie, Evans joined hundreds of other attendees and volunteers for the first-ever "Night to Shine Prom" at gtChurch on the city's east side. The free event is a part of an international campaign sponsored by the Tim Tebow Foundation to provide an "unforgettable prom night experience" for people with special needs.
Evans said his first prom was exactly as he anticipated, and when asked how he planned to spend his time, his answer was simple: "Dance with all of the pretty girls," he said with a smile.
Friday was the fifth anniversary of the Night to Shine campaign, and gtChurch joined over 600 other churches around the world to host prom events that night. Organizing Decatur's prom was a joint effort between gtChurch, First Christian Church and Macon Resources Inc.
MRI is a Decatur-based nonprofit organization that provides a variety of services to children and adults with disabilities. Amy Bliefnick, the organization's president, described the mood of the event as "electric."
"I'll tell you, the best part about Night to Shine has been the community behind this event," she said. "First Christian Church and gtChurch started the (Decatur) event; we kind of came in also to provide the support of individuals with developmental disabilities, and it's been just a huge success."
Bliefnick said 250 guests, ranging from 14-year-olds to adults like Evans, registered to attend Friday's prom. On the volunteer front, she said, 600 people were present to handle several tasks, such as acting as "buddies" to accompany each prom-goer and helping with the food line.
"And we have over 200 family members that are going to be here tonight," Bliefnick said. "So there's a lot of people here to support these individuals and our honored guests."
Registered guests were welcomed to gtChurch with the pomp and circumstance that's become synonymous with prom. They and their buddies walked a long red carpet that led toward the dance floor and food area.
Afterward, they had their pick of activities to choose from, such as posing for pictures or singing karaoke. A hair and makeup station was also set up within the church in case a touch-up was needed, as well as a respite area for guests of the attendees and a quiet room for guests who experience sensory overload.
Guests were also given free flowers and corsages, and everyone was crowned king or queen at the end and walked away with bags filled with gifts.
"(The prom) is all about the guests," said Charity Miller, event coordinator for gtChurch. "... It's all about what they feel comfortable doing and what makes them happy."
Jonathan Grunden, discipleship pastor for First Christian Church, said the church had initially planned to host its own Night to Shine prom until they learned that gtChurch planned to host one, too. Both churches have ministries that serve people with special needs, he said.
Instead of having competing events, Grunden said, both churches decided to team up and host a single prom.
"MRI was a big game-changer," he said. "We were hoping to have 75 guests, but MRI got involved, and now we have over 250 guests tonight ... walking down that hallway (and) watching people come down that red carpet; it's awesome."
Evans' prom buddy was Brad Auten, MRI's director of sales and production. He hoped people who learned about Night to Shine and its mission understand that the people it supports are "special in their own ways."
"I think that it's good for them to have this kind of recognition," Auten said.
Bliefnick said Night to Shine wouldn't have been possible without the support of the volunteers and the community. She expects next year's prom will be bigger and better than the first.
"Decatur is a big volunteer community," she said. "We can do anything in this community, and we continue to show that through the many volunteer activities that we have. It doesn't surprise me ever to see Decatur step up."
Robin Birge and her daughter, Paige, served as medical volunteers for the night. Robin Birge said they decided to volunteer because they were supporters of Tebow and admired the philanthropic work that the athlete regularly participates in.
Volunteering for the event was not only a way to spread God's love to others, Robin Birge said, but also a way to ensure the guests have a good time.
"Everyone deserves to feel special and have a prom," she said.