A Night to Shine

Christine and Erik

Christine and Erik

On Friday, February 8th, Christine Alberg got extra dressed up in preparation for a big night. She did her hair and makeup, grabbed a fancy, shimmery dress, some high heels, and headed off to the prom. Kind of. Friday night’s prom was special. The prom was held just for people in Lodi with special needs. The prom was called Night to Shine, and it’s an event through the Tim Tebow Foundation. Churches sign up to host the event and this is the second year the Horizon Church from Galt has hosted this prom for Lodi. The purpose of the night is to celebrate people with special needs; it’s a night for everyone to shine. You’ve probably seen the smiles all over social media and in the newspaper. The Village (a Lodi center for adults with special needs) even uploaded a video of the prom goers walking down the red carpet into the event (if you haven’t seen the video you can check out all the beautiful happy smiles here). It looks like the absolute happiest night ever. With all the dazzling smiles of people with special needs, I wanted to get the story of a volunteer. What was it like being able to make somebody that happy? Was it one of the most memorable nights ever? Christine was one of the many volunteers who showed up to make the night extra special. To answer my first two questions, it felt better than I could imagine to make somebody that happy and yes, it was a night she’ll remember for a long, long time.

Each person with special needs was paired with a date whose job it was to make sure they had a fun night. Christine’s date was Erik. “When I first arrived I hadn’t been paired up with anybody yet so I was just waiting under a tent to find out who I was going to be paired with,” shared Christine. “Being somebody who hasn’t done it before (the Night to Shine event), I was really nervous. I wanted to make sure that I did everything right and that whoever I was going to get paired with was going to have fun and have a really good night because I know that this is something that the community of people with special needs look forward to so much and we also look forward to it all year for them.” Christine is a teacher and while she sees kids with special needs, she doesn’t specialize in special needs education. So this was definitely a bit out of her comfort zone and she was nervous about doing a good job, just like any of us would be. Christine met her date, Erik. Erik has dressed to the nines in a white button up with a red vest. He has autism and is nonverbal, so he uses an iPad to communicate. “When he first met me I could tell he was really nervous and somewhat scared because of so much going on. So I did my best to try to talk to him.”

Six limos arrived and met all of the prom-goers to take them to Hutchins Street Square for the big night. When Christine and Erik got to Hutchins Street Square they were greeted by cheering crowds (also all volunteers) and a red carpet leading them into the ballroom. “Because Erik was sensory sensitive I could tell it was a little overwhelming. His dad pulled me aside and let me know that he had some fear of dogs and too much sound. He gave me some ear plugs for Erik and I was able to guide him and follow him down the red carpet.” Once they got in and Erik was able to get comfortable the two of them had a lot of fun. Erik wanted to walk around, so the two of them walked. According to Christine, they walked a lot. ”So we walked. For hours. Next year I’ll be sure to wear my dancing/walking shoes in the form of sneakers,” laughed Christine. “We just walked together in circles around the room. He would pause every once in while in certain places to look at the lights and look at everything and take it all in. A song would come on that he liked and he would start to smile and laugh and bounce his shoulders to the music. Then we go walk again. Once he got warmed up to me and the room, I saw that he was able to relax and enjoy himself. It was a really happy moment for me to see that and be a part of him being so happy.” By the end of the night, they were both all smiles and surely exhausted.

So what made Christine decide to volunteer for this in the first place? Good old Facebook. “I heard about it through Facebook,” shared Christine. “A friend from my gym posted about it and as soon as I saw it I wanted to do it. I’ve always had a big soft spot for people with special needs. Growing up I went to Live Oak Elementary which shared a field with a special needs school. I spent many of my recesses, lunches and any other allowed time across the field helping out. As a teacher I also get to interact with our students with special needs and they always make me genuinely smile.” It wasn’t just Facebook of course. Why does anyone volunteer? They want a chance to know they can make a difference and help others. Christine had a desire to give back and thanks to the powers of social media this opportunity showed up right in her lap. Sometimes it can feel a little scary to volunteer with something new. We hesitate to take advantage of those perfect volunteering opportunities because it’s outside our comfort zone, but when hesitate we miss magical evenings like this. Christine signed up for something new with this event. By putting herself out there she didn’t just make big difference for those she was serving (Erik and his family), volunteering at this event made a big difference in her own life. “I wanted so badly to try to make someone’s night special and in the beginning I had feared that it might be too much and I might not be good for him but seeing him smile and be so happy was heartwarming. His dad did tell me later that he normally doesn’t stay for more than an hour so, maybe an hour and a half because it becomes a sensory overload. He really enjoyed last night, though, and was able to hang out for almost the whole night. I met his mom and dad, who are also very lovely and very sweet, and I interacted with a lot of other people who were just all smiling all day. Everyone was talking about how happy they were, and it just felt like everybody in the room was beaming with love and acceptance and joy.”

“I would encourage people who are considering becoming part of this to reach out,” continued Christine. “There are many ways to help out if being a buddy doesn’t feel like the right fit but you still are inspired to help.  Some people help by setting up, organizing, or making themselves present that night to help out with what’s needed. There’s a lot of work that goes into the event so many hands are needed. I want to be a buddy again next year. I hope to see Erik again and make new friends. The relationships are what really inspired me to join and what will keep me involved. I would also say to keep your eyes and ears open about Galt Horizon Church fundraising efforts throughout the year that they put on to help fund this event.” This is such a sweet event. I know personally, just being able to hear Christine’s experience makes me want to show up next year.  Christine will absolutely volunteer at this event again. The only difference she anticipates next year? “No high heels!” she laughs.

Learn more about the event here.