Everyone deserves their “Night to Shine”

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 14, 2016

By Susan Shinn
For the Salisbury Post

It could have been any night on the red carpet. Throngs of adoring fans. Photographers everywhere. Camera flashes lighting up the night sky. Exuberant smiles.

But this red carpet took place at the Tim Tebow Night to Shine on Friday night at First Baptist Church’s Ministry Center. More than 350 volunteers made sure that 165 special-needs folks felt, well, special.

It was their night to shine, truly.

It began over in the fellowship hall before 6 o’clock, where a cadre of hairdressers, make-up artists and others kept busy shining shoes, polishing nails and bestowing golden crowns or sparkly tiaras on each attendee.

Then, guests loaded up on the trolleys for a quick run over to the Ministry Center. Upon arrival, more than a dozen members of the Salisbury Fire Department, looking snazzy in their dress uniforms, were there to help party-goers off the trolley, and escort them to the door, and down that red carpet.

“You look so pretty!” “You look so beautiful!” was heard over and over as the guests made their way to the trolley. One young woman even lost a shoe coming up the steps — just like Cinderella.

Maggie Fitzgerald’s mom Bonnie held an extra pair of shoes for her daughter. One pair was for walking, the other for dancing. Maggie sat on the trolley with Faith Kepley, Diana Ki and Sarah Fisher.

“She took the day off school to bask in all of this,” Fitzgerald said. “She’s talked of nothing else for a week.”

Maggie is a senior at Salisbury High School, one of Bonnie and John Fitzgerald’s seven daughters.

“Maggie will dance until they close the doors,” Fitzgerald said. “She is so excited.”

Excitement was pretty much the word of the evening among attendees and volunteers alike.

Dr. Ken Lance, First Baptist’s senior pastor, was at the front door to the gym, greeting every visitor who came in.

“Come on in!” he said. “We’re so glad you’re here.”

He was looking dapper in a black tuxedo, red vest and matching red running shoes. It was a good choice of footwear. Everyone was busy and had a job to do.

Nearby, David Whisenant called out each attendee’s name in a big, booming voice as each person made his or her way down the red carpet.

Dressed in a sparkly red gown, Emily Coy screamed in delight as she high-fived fans along the way.

Each attendee was assigned a buddy for the evening. Ally Fesperman, a junior at UNCC, stood at the end of the red carpet, waiting to meet Zachary Cook.

“We stay with them and dance with them and do karaoke,” she said.

All around, the sound of conversation, folks getting to know one another.

“What’s your favorite song to dance to?” “How old are you?”

Meanwhile, Mike Burnette, dressed in a natty red kilt, maneuvered his way down the red carpet in his electric wheelchair, a wide smile on his face.

He’s a member of First Baptist, and an inspiration to the congregation’s Access Ministry Team, which reaches out to those with special needs and emphasizes inclusiveness.

Members of that committee are Jtan Whisenant, Mary Ann Cody, Gina Pinyan, Kelly Baker, Marsha Tolbert, Darlene Barnett, Susan Coburn, Mike Lippard and Tommie Taylor. This committee spearheaded Friday night’s event.

First Baptist received a $7,000 grant from the Tim Tebow Foundation to put on the Night to Shine. Some 200 events took place in seven different countries, Whisenant said.

Attendees ranged from age 16 to 72. Not only were they treated like VIPs, their caregivers were, too, spending the evening in an upstairs lounge complete with refreshments, entertainment from Michael “Mailvis” Thomas, chair massages, door prizes and more.

“We have felt a calling that we needed to do this, and reach out to this community,” said Whisenant, who recently retired after 30 years as a special education teacher. “This all came about after I retired. I just felt like it was God’s timing.”

Along with a multitude of church members, Catawba students and athletes and Crosby Scholars served as buddies.

Nearby, Sarah Fisher sat enjoying the music with her buddy close by. Her eye shadow and fingernails matched her shiny lavender gown.

“It’s good,” she said, clearly overwhelmed by the whole evening.

Attired in a fluffy fur jacket and long gown, Jeannie Crook sat between her mom, Theresa, and her buddy Kyle Kitchens.

Crook encouraged all parents of special-needs children to bring them to events such as these.

“This is a new experience for me,” said Kitchens, a sophomore football player at Catawba. “It’s going good. I plan on doing this more in the future, helping out, and giving back to the community.”

Lauren Thomas is a UNCC sophomore. She was the buddy of Andrew Stirewalt, who was looking spiffy in a sapphire dress shirt, black sweater vest and black pants.

Lauren plans to study occupational therapy.

“I think it’s so sweet they do this,” she said.

By then, Mailvis had made his way down to the gym, and the crowd was delighted. The music started, and those on the floor began to dance the night away to familiar rock ’n’ roll tunes.

It was their night to shine.

Freelance writer Susan Shinn lives in Salisbury.