It starts now, right past Halloween, that retailers and organizations, schools and institutions, families and neighbors prepare for Thanksgiving. They plan for the feasts and football, the camaraderie and coming together that ushers in the traditional ‘joy to the world’ season of carols and Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, or other observances.
But while most of us will spend the next few weeks on meal planning and table settings, gift buying and wrapping, addressing and sending cards, figuring holiday travel routes, and wondering out loud what you can possibly give your brother who already has everything (a donation in his name to his favorite charity, perhaps?), Juliana is mulling over dresses.
To be precise, she is thinking about fancy dresses. Gowns. Ball gowns. Juliana, 16, and a sophomore at Kingsway Regional, is the daughter of Valerie and Phil Amaradio of Woolwich. She is readying for the prom. Her second prom. She wants to attend the prom again because she had so much fun at her first prom, earlier this year.
Charming and chatty, Juliana was born with a rare genetic disorder known as Williams Syndrome, which causes developmental delays, learning problems, and cardiovascular issues. It also enhances a person’s communication, empathy and interaction skills.
“Juliana,” her mother said, “loves to be the center of attention and there she shines.”
That “shine” was perfect this past February when Juliana, her twin brother, Dominic, and two friends attended the Night to Shine Prom hosted at Masso’s in Glassboro by the Crossbridge Community Church in Swedesboro. In an effort to provide a wonderful evening for the special needs community, the church joined approximately 700 other faith-based institutions around the world in an initiative sponsored and spread by the Tim Tebow Foundation.
Tebow was an acclaimed quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner (2007) who had stints with the Broncos, Jets, Patriots and Eagles. Switching sports, he is currently playing baseball for the New York Mets.
Elsewhere around the globe he is also known as the son of missionaries and a philanthropist devoted to children’s issues, contributing his time and funds to improving the lives of kids in need, building a children’s hospital in the Philippines and raising money for a pediatric cancer center in Gainesville, FL, and a Disney trip for disadvantaged children. Tebow, noted for his religious outlook, founded the Tim Tebow Foundation, “To bring Faith, Hope and Love to those needing a brighter day in their darkest hour of need,” according to the mission statement on his foundation website.
One of those Foundation initiatives is the global Night to Shine, begun five years ago and designed to bring the prom experience to young people who likely would never go to one. In the Swedesboro area, Crossbridge Church saw a chance to contribute.
Itself fairly young, founded just 13 years ago, the church belongs to the Christian and Missionary Alliance and has a congregation of about 180 people, said Head Pastor Jimmy Donaruma. Pastor Donaruma was visiting a church in Morris County last year and saw a presentation from the Tebow Foundation about Night to Shine.
“I was impressed,” he recalled. “I sat down and asked God if this is what’s right for us, for our much smaller congregation. I saw the amount of work it needed and … had a long list of fears.”
Pastor Donaruma ran the ideas and his fears past his church board, consulted his Bible, and, he said, he received a message. He concluded the church would participate.
It held its first Night to Shine Prom in February last year to rave reviews of the highest order. “Everyone wants to do it again,” the Pastor said. “We had 250 volunteers to help 76 guests in (this past) February, our first effort,” he continued.
“Now, by mid-October, we already have 68 guests pre-registered and many of the volunteers are returning. The community is involved. I think our community is looking for opportunities to serve, to love people. All the people who donated time, or money or services, all of them want to return and do it again.”
That fact is particularly fortunate, Pastor Donaruma implied. “Everything is entirely free (or discounted) for the participants. Even the limo ride, florists, the food, the hair salon. We have donations of time and services, grants for renting the facility and help from the (Tebow) Foundation, even a decorator. This is massive. It takes a village to pull this off.”
Jeanine Robbins, Treasurer and Special Needs Coordinator for the church, directed the Prom project. The success of the effort was stunning, she said.
“It was beyond anything I imagined. ‘Emotional’ would be an understatement. If you are experienced with anyone in the special needs community, they bring pure joy. And they all had a chance to be themselves and it was pure joy to be there.”
Guests to the prom must be 14 and older but may come from anywhere. “We had guests from Gloucester, Camden, Salem counties and one from Maryland, because her family lives here”, Robbins said. Those guests are greeted at the door to the prom with a red carpet and a paparazzi of people cheering, taking photos, clapping and treating each arrival like a celebrity.
Guests are paired with a volunteer “buddy” for the prom experience of dancing, eating, congregating. “The idea is to show the community that God loves each and every one. He knows who you are and He loves who you are,” Robbins said, echoing a similar statement from Pastor Donaruma, when he was asked why the church undertook such a large venture.
The prom experience, where you dress up, wear flowers, go to dance and mingle to a DJ and music, flashing lights keeping time, is a special milestone, Robbins said, and one most teens with special needs will not have. The Tebow Foundation schedules the dances around Valentine’s Day and every prom takes place on the same day. It coordinates the colors, too, for a global connection. The 2018 prom in February was decked out in blues and gray and black, perfect for twinkling stars upon the walls and ceilings.
Juliana Amaradio’s mother heard about the winter prom from Robbins because both their daughters attend the same Glassboro dance class. “I was originally not going to sign (Juliana) up for the prom because she was in Homecoming (events) in the fall at high school. But that was her fitting in to the (other kids’) world; a girl with special needs fitting in, like she always has to try to do. She tries not to be different, tries to fit in, and her anxiety rises to max capacity, so to go to Night to Shine, that anxiety isn’t there. She can be herself and she is accepted for that”
Valerie Amaradio paused to look at her daughter. “Night to Shine was a place where she could let her hair down and just have fun. And she did. It was magical. There were lots of happy tears. It was very moving to see kids come in and be spotlighted, people clapping for them, making them feel special. We did the whole prom thing, flowers, pictures at the house, and we rented a limo. We didn’t realize the prom had a limo where guests could ride a short while for the experience. Everybody at the prom got a crown (for boys) or a tiara (for girls) and took it home,” she added.
Her daughter, Juliana, chose a black and tan floor-length gown, trimmed at the neck and with a black cape for warmth if needed. She wore a pink wrist corsage. Her memories are still fresh and enthusiastic.
“I liked how I was the star of it,” she said, speaking of walking down the red carpet. “I got a crown and I wore it to school for a week after the prom,” she said of her tiara. “I liked when I could twirl in my (gown), and there was some really good food. It was a buffet. I really liked it.
“And I’m going to go again next year!” Juliana announced.
Also going next year is Emma Ayers, daughter of Melanie and Clyde Ayers of Carney’s Point. No longer a teenager. Emma, born with Down syndrome, was 21 when she went to her first prom. Melanie Ayers heard about Night to Shine from Jeanine Robbins and immediately knew her daughter would love such an experience.
Emma, who attended Penns Grove High, went to Homecoming events, like Juliana did, but never to a prom. Her mother and Emma went to one of the salons Robbins mentioned as donating services, the Salon Bridget, and picked out a gown.
“It had blue sparkles and came down to her knees. It had a sweetheart neckline and a silver sparkly belt, and we paired that with a sheer, little jacket,” Melanie Ayers recalled. “She tried it all on and we went to buy it and they said it was hers. Free,” Melanie Ayers said, sounding still amazed.
“Emma is a dancer,” her mother said. “Put music on and she’ll dance to it, with anybody or nobody. When we pulled up, there was a line of people cheering the guests to come in and people opened the door for us. It was a fun, positive night where everyone was a king or a queen. The excitement of the dance, I knew she’d have a good time and could just be herself because Emma is the fun! It was absolutely amazing and wonderful.
“Everything was there for the guests, even therapy dogs in a special room if a guest needed a place to go and be quiet for a while. There was even a respite room for adults to rest, and be entertained with Bollywood dancers!” Melanie said.
Asked how she liked her first prom, Emma waxed ecstatic. “I think I could be myself, being in the moment. I felt like a spark in the middle of the night and there were stars in the middle of my stomach. I was like a celebrity. I felt like a celebrity when I was riding in the limo. It had black and red seats. I liked the music, the country songs, pop, and rock and roll the best.”
Does that mean she’ll go to the next prom? She answered immediately, emphatically. ‘Yes! I will go next year!”
Have you been wondering what the message was that Pastor Donaruma found when looking for guidance on whether or not to host a prom? I saw what I needed in John 13:17,” he said. “Now that you know these things, you’ll be blessed if you do them,” he quoted from his memory. “This event for us was that message.”
Interested in learning more about the next Night to Shine Prom, to be held Feb. 8, 2019, from 6 p.m. to around 9 p.m. at the newly renovated The Grove at Centerton? You can find more information and sign up as a guest, a volunteer or a donator of funds, goods, or services at the church’s website: Crossbridgecc.org.
— By Jean Redstone