Christian Roges looked to the sky as the light, bouncing opening riff from a recording of the Black-Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling” filled the dance hall at the Gwinnett Church during the Night to Shine Prom on Friday night.
An expression of bliss came across his face as he held the hands of two girls and they began bouncing to the music as will.i.am’s voice started to come across the sound system.
“I gotta feeling that tonight’s gonna be a good night, that tonight’s gonna be a good night, that tonight’s gonna be a good, good night,” the singer sang.
A few moments later, Roges was jumping up and down, his floppy brown hair bouncing from side to side, as the thumping beat picked up and the sound grew louder.
“This is really super,” he said afterwards. “I like the dancing.”
Roges was one of the 450 special needs residents, or “special friends” as prom organizers prefer to call them, who got to enjoy the glitz and glamour of a traditional prom at the event. It was organized by Happy Feat and the Gwinnett Church, with a crew of 500 volunteers, and sponsored by the Tim Tebow Foundation.
Happy Feat has been staging proms for four years now, and it’s partnered with Gwinnett Church for at least a few of those years. Lucy Miller started the group when she was a student at North Gwinnett High School after she was inspired by one of the school’s special-needs students, David O’Callaghan.
Miller volunteered to work with special needs students at the school.
“After he turned 21, he would sit at home and watch movies and not do anything, and I had other kids that I taught that would also sit at home once they aged out (of the school program),” Miller said. “So, by putting them in Happy Feat, it gives them a chance to interact with people in the community and work and have fun.”
Miller is now a sophomore at the University of Georgia. In addition to the prom, Happy Feat also stages a live nativity at Christmas and a party at Halloween. Happy Feat also works to help the special friends get hooked up with area businesses in the Suwanee and Sugar Hill area so they can have jobs.
“We want every single kid who ages out to have no problem at all,” she said. “We want it to go nation-wide, hopefully, and every year, we double in size.”
Miller’s mother, Dawn, who helps her daughter run Happy Feat, said the group wants to make sure the special friends feel welcome in the community, which is why they hold so many events and programs throughout the year.
“Inclusion is the most important thing,” she said. “The more involved they become, the more accepted they feel.”
She praised the support the group gets from the community and businesses, including several restaurants who provided food for the prom.
Although a prom for the special friends is not new for Happy Feat and the church, this was the first year that they joined up as part of the Tim Tebow Foundation’s Night to Shine program. More than 200 similar proms were held around the world Friday night in partnership with the foundation.
To the casual observer, the event would have seemed like just about any high school prom in America. The guys got dressed up in tuxedos, and the girls got dolled up in elaborate evening gowns.
The guests of honor also look forward to the event, making sure they are ready to have the night of their lives. O’Callaghan, for example, practiced his dance moves for weeks to get ready for it.
“I’m working it out there,” he said.
There were a few differences, though. The special friends who attended the prom each got to wear a tiara or a crown, depending on whether they were a girl or a boy.
And, how many high school proms include a special appearance by Tim Tebow via twin jumbo screens?
“This night is about you; it’s your night for you to shine,” Tebow said in a recorded message. “I wish I could hug every single one of you. I wish I could have seen every single one of your tuxes and your dresses, and how great you look, but guys, it is my honor right now to name every single one of you the king or the queen of the prom …
“That’s how important you are. That’s how special you are. That is how much you are loved.”
Each special friend who attends the prom is partnered with a volunteer, usually a teenager or college student, who serves as their date, or “buddy,” to the prom. The buddies came from different places. Some were North Gwinnett High School students. Others were Gwinnett Church members. Friends of Miller and her family also volunteered for the event.
Organizers actually had more volunteers to be buddies than they had special friends to pair them with, said Miller, who was O’Callaghan’s buddy.
But for the volunteers, getting the chance to help make the event a special one is a rewarding experience.
First-time volunteer Caroline McBride said she enjoyed the experience. McBride was Christian Roges’ buddy for the prom, and one of the two girls he danced with as “I Gotta Feeling” was played.
“I think it’s really special because other high school students get to have this experience and just getting to give back to special needs people is really special,” she said.
University of Georgia student Alex Hardy, who has been a volunteer buddy for the prom for three years, came back again this year and served as a buddy to Gloria Dowers.
“(The best part is) how special it is and how much fun they have, and getting to see them have fun,” he said. “That’s what tonight is all about, you know.”
The special friends had fun, too. When “Let It Go” from the movie “Frozen” was played, several of them came up on stage and sang along to it as the crowd cheered them on.
Small balloons, in an array of colors, were later dropped from four star-shaped net containers as Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” played on the sound system. Bubbles were later blown into the crowd during several songs.
As the night began to wind down, a blissful look came across the face of Dowers, whose white dress matched the silver glimmer of her tiara. She said she enjoyed herself and liked the dancing and the food. She added that she was going to be sad once it was over.
“It’s been a good night,” she said.