“Night to Shine” returned to Gwinnett County Friday night with as much glitz and glamour and, of course, the full royal treatment as was expected.
About 500 local teens and adults with special needs, known as “guests,” walked down the red carpet into Gwinnett Church as hundreds more friends, family, community members and volunteers cheered them on.
The prom was the largest to date. It was hosted by HappyFeat and Gwinnett Church for the fourth time through a partnership with the Tim Tebow Foundation, and included individuals with special needs who ranged in age from 14 to 70.
“It almost brings tears to my eyes thinking about it,” Lucy Miller, founder of HappyFeat said. “It is a night we look forward to all year long. It is the happiest and most special night that you can be a part of. Anybody and everybody in our community will tell you that it has changed them in so, so many ways. It is just an amazing event.”
HappyFeat is a local nonprofit organization that offers individuals with special needs educational, employment and life enrichment opportunities. In 2014, Miller, a senior at North Gwinnett High School at the time, established it after she met special needs student David O’Callahan.
O’Callahan is now 24 years old and works at different places around the community. His relationship with Miller has evolved into a lifetime friendship. Miller said they spend weekends together, and when they were in school they attended every prom and homecoming together.
The two attended the event together once again Friday night— Miller dressed in long, red dress and O’Callahan in a black suit and hot pink shirt.
Miller said it’s been great to see her “sweet angel” grow and blossom. It just goes to show, she said, that individuals with special needs are capable of so many things with the right push and drive to do them.
“I always like to think big so I always thought that of course we’d get here, but the amount of work and the amount of people that have just come around us and helped us is just absolutely incredible,” Miller said about the prom.
Wendy Casey said the event was exciting for her as a parent of a 24-year-old son with special needs. On Friday, she was one of the 1,400 volunteers that helped make the event possible.
“I couldn’t imagine doing anything different,” she said. “If I can volunteer my services, it’s perfect.”
There were also about 800 high school students who dressed up to act as dates of the guests, Sheila Crumrine, Miller’s friend and volunteer, said.
“It’s amazing to see all of these high school girls all dressed up and acting as dates,” she said. “It’s amazing to me that on a Friday night they got dressed up to volunteer. And all of that started at the high school with that first dance. That’s another thing we hope to see, just more inclusion.”
At the end of the night, that’s what the event is all about – being more inclusive of individuals with special needs.
“I just hope all this leads to more awareness about how needed it is and how capable and special they are,” Miller said about what she hopes to see for the event five years down the road. “I just hope hands all around embrace them and make more events like this available for them.”