WARREN, NJ - Inclusion. Warren Township was a site for Night to Shine, sponsored by the Tim Tebow Foundation, a prom night experience for people with special needs, ages 14 and up.  Approximately 100 guests strolled the red carpet at Stonecrest Community Church on Friday.


When Night to Shine launched in 2015, 44 host churches and 15,000 volunteers worked together to honor more than 7,000 kings and queens of the prom. Tim Tebow Foundation is seeing new churches sign up continuously and the event is expected to take place in over 700 locations in 2019.

For more see https://www.timtebowfoundation.org/

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A Warren mom said of the event at Stonecrest:


"Thank You" hardly seems to encompass our gratitude to Stonecrest Community Church, Tim Tebow, Join the Night to Shine Team, Tim Tebow "Night to Shine", Fitness-Essentials and all the volunteers, providers, caterers, service personnel, etc...whose combined efforts created last night's "Night To Shine Prom 2019" at Stonecrest Community Church here in Warren.


As you can well imagine, the path of parenthood when your child is disabled is fraught with concerns. There are the very real, very present fears regarding developmental milestones, physical capabilities, intellectual hurdles, effective communication, etc... The list goes on infinitely, as each disability and its co-morbid conditions presents differently for each individual. But above all these, overshadowing us as we sit in 504 and IEP meetings...as we ferry our children to doctors and therapists and service providers...as our days revolve around adjusting and accommodating and advocating...there is one common concern to us all...


"Will my child be accepted for who he/she is? Will the world make a safe space for him/her? Will he/she be included? Will anyone else ever see past his/her disability to the WHOLE-the intentional-the perfectly imperfect and imperfectly perfect person he/she/they/we all are? Will my child have the same chances that we all deserve?"


These. These are the questions that percolate in our minds at 3am. They are the questions we can't set aside. They are, as I have said to my friends, the constant fear between each heartbeat. 


What you would have seen (and maybe you did) had you been in attendance at last night's event, was an answer to those fears. Albeit, a temporary reprieve, but a reprieve nonetheless. We parents assisted our children and young people with wardrobe choices in advance of their big night. We helped them carefully select their dresses and tuxedos and suits. We set up hair appointments and makeup sessions. Some of us blocked out time for shoe shining, or for a quick adjustment at the seamstresses. We encouraged our children as they prepped for their grand entrance. And we, or at least I, blinked back the tears and choked back the emotion as we headed out the door with our beautiful, prom-ready children. We knew, full well, that this was our moment as much as it was theirs. We knew this moment was a gift to us; one in which we got to be "just parents"...not special-needs parents. Just parents, sending their children off to prom, knowing we didn't have to breathe in and out our fears for their safety or welcome or acceptance or inclusion. And so we arrived at Stonecrest last night, we parents and children and young adults. We arrived proudly.


My son, like all the honored guests, was warmly greeted. He was paired with a volunteer. He was escorted down a red carpet, immediately adjusted from a cheering squad to a quiet, welcoming wave to accommodate his particular sensory needs. I watched as they walked down that carpet, and snapped this photo quickly, while fiercely blinking back the tears of pride and joy that sprang up.


I, like many parents, headed upstairs to be welcomed myself to the parent respite area. A warm greeting again, and a warm beverage by way of the coffee/tea bar. A meal I neither had to cook, nor adjust to my child's needs or preference. A massage. A table full of friends, old and new...other parents such as myself, for whom our "language" is a familiar one. We shared "war stories" from our recent IEP meetings and case-managerial conferences. We laughed over the things only we can find funny. Occasionally one or another of us would "sneak" down to get a glimpse of our children, or stand in front of one of the tv screens trying to pick out familiar faces from the crowd dancing the night away downstairs. We proudly shared photos of prom prep with one another, each of us connecting in our shared joy. Each of knowing that this night was enough to carry us through another 364 days. 


Thank you, is surely not enough to encompass all that. Thank you doesn't say enough. It doesn't acknowledge the individual efforts that made last night beautiful in every way. The time and attention to detail. The individual and en masse decisions that allowed for each child and young adult to experience prom in a way that was wholly accepting and wholly tailored to his/her needs. It doesn't even begin to touch on the warmth our parent-hearts felt as we stepped in those doors with our children. 


I want to make special note of the familiar faces I saw last night. Staff members from the Warren Township Schools that had volunteered their time and energy to our children once again. My son saw his old gym teacher. He saw a teacher who so embraced him (and all disabled persons) for exactly who and how he is, that she was willing to give him this night. He saw his favourite custodian from his elementary years and relished in the familiarity of that face and that smile and that warm, welcoming disposition. That same custodian gave perhaps the most moving, heartfelt and genuinely beautiful speech I have heard to parents later that evening.


Forgive me for getting personal/emotional here, but needs must. I need you all to understand that for this night, disability did not exist. For this night, it was the world as we hope it will be for our children. For this night, it was just ability...just young people being who they are and how they are and blissfully dancing the night away (or in my son's case: talking the night away, in the quiet room, chatting with his buddy about Transformers and 3D engineering and life!). It was prom. It was beautiful and it was heartwarming. And it was a reminder that he, my son, is growing up and out and past my ability to safely enclose and protect him. It was a reminder that there are people out there who WILL embrace him, just as he is.


Thank you to Stonecrest Church and the countless volunteers. Thank you to the photographers and musicians and djs. The television crew. The chefs and waitstaff. The greeters. The sponsors, Thank you to Laura Lamson, and custodian Dave. Thank you to Clifford Joseph and his team. Thank you to all those (again, do tag yourselves and take a bow!) who made this a night of true inclusivity, celebration and love!


P.s.-this is the Warren I think we can all strive to be.

-Leanna Wellerding


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