Their turn in the spotlight

Teens, adults with special needs crowned kings, queens on ‘Night to Shine’

The dark blue curtain parted and there he was — Dale Potter with his date, a pretty blonde named Becall Johns.

He looked as cool as a cucumber in a gray tuxedo, top hat, dark glasses and a smile as wide as the Mississippi is long. The crowd that lined the red carpet cheered. If they weren’t applauding and giving high-fives to those arriving, they waved signs that read “You Are Beautiful,” “We Love You” and “You’re Amazing.”

Dale, 32, paused for a moment and tipped his hat. Becall beamed.

They could've been anywhere on this Friday, but this wasn't any old Friday night. This was the Friday before Valentine's Day when churches here and across the country, indeed all over the world, simultaneously host the annual "Night to Shine." At this event, people 14 and over with special needs gather and experience what it feels like to be the center of attention. Special. Loved.

And so this night at First Baptist Church Atlanta in Dunwoody has belonged to Dale and Becall, his Sunday school teacher, since 2017, when church officials opened their doors for the big prom, an opportunity some thought they'd never see.

People with special needs like Dale are rarely invited to parties, play dates and other social activities. Physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments often hinder their full participation in society on an equal basis with others.

“Night to Shine” was designed to counter that.

Organizers believe that no matter their disability, people with special needs should be treated like everyone else — not just on this night but every day of their lives.

A chance to feel special

“Night to Shine” is billed as an unforgettable prom. The event is the brainchild of former NFL quarterback Tim Tebow, who won the Heisman Trophy while playing for the University of Florida, and his foundation.

The effort has spread like wildfire. What began in 2015 with 44 churches has grown to include some 655 in all 50 states and 16 countries to bring faith, hope and love to a community that doesn’t always feel it.

First Baptist Atlanta joined the movement in 2016.

That year, Mackenzie Bodin, who’d spent a year teaching special education in a public school system, came on board to head the church’s special needs ministry.

Bodin had a heart for children and always thought she’d pursue a degree in early childhood education, but during her freshman year at Gainesville State University, she studied abroad in Belize, where she met a little girl named Irma, and that changed.

Irma, born with multiple disabilities, had undergone 20-plus surgeries, and it had stunted her growth.

“I just connected with her,” Bodin said. “I saw her pain and knew there was something pulling me towards special education, where I could make a difference.”

Bodin soon transferred to Georgia College and State University and, in 2015, graduated and started work on her master's degree. She taught children with autism for a year in the Forsyth County school system before, she said, "God called me here."

She arrived at First Baptist Atlanta with this dream to do something — a camp or some other kind of big event — for the special needs community.

When she shared that dream with her boss, Bodin said she showed her an email she’d gotten from the church’s associate pastor about “Night to Shine.”

Bodin submitted the application and in October 2016 received the green light from Tebow’s foundation.

“We started planning and our first ‘Night to Shine’ was held Feb. 10, 2017.”

That year, First Baptist Atlanta’s “Night to Shine” drew 93 people ages 14 to 85, and that nearly doubled the second year to 163, drawing people all the way from Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee. This year, more than 270 turned out for the prom.

The prom officially kicked off at 6 p.m.

Dale and his date, with parents in tow, were among the first to arrive, though hundreds would closely follow, filling the church corridors and rooms turned into a shoe shine station, a beauty salon, a dining hall and, yes, a place for karaoke and dancing the night away.

It was a sight to see — volunteers handing out white rose boutonnieres and corsages, spit-shining shoes, straightening and curling hair, applying makeup.

Whatever the heart could imagine, it was there.

There was even a respite room where parents dined from an Italian buffet, mingled a bit and, if they wanted, took in the night via live streamed video.

“The goal is to make everyone feel very, very special,” said Dede Darby, director of First Baptist’s children’s ministry. “That’s what this night is all about.”

Determined to enjoy life

In Jeremiah 29:11, the Lord declares: “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

That’s the message Tebow and the houses of worship that have supported his effort have worked all these years to communicate to the special needs community.

Whether born with autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, mild to severe intellectual or developmental disabilities, those with special needs didn’t just evolve into being but were “fearfully and wonderfully” made just like Scripture says.

Dale is the oldest of Price and Terri Potter’s three sons.

When doctors announced Dale had Down syndrome, a chromosomal disorder that can delay physical and intellectual development, Terri Potter said, “we quickly did our own research.”

What they discovered didn’t matter. They intended to give Dale as normal a life as possible. It took him longer to learn most skills, but he has led a full life. Indeed, his social calendar far exceeds his younger “more normal” brothers’.

So when his parents learned First Baptist was hosting “Night to Shine,” they had to be there.

Even though Dale graduated from Dunwoody High School in 2008, he did not attend the school prom.

“Night to Shine,” he said, “is really fun. I enjoy dancing, the good food and I’m going to try karaoke this year.”

Asked how he scored such a beautiful date, Dale smiled.

“She picked me out,” he said.

The same could be said, in fact, for Jason Reynolds’ date, Jennifer Hendricks.

For the past seven years, Jennifer has been the Reynoldses’ dental hygienist. She offered to accompany Jason to the prom the moment she heard about the event.

“I love Jason,” she said, fresh off the red carpet. “The joy that comes out of him when we do this is so, so wonderful. I wouldn’t miss it.”

Jason, whose name means the healing one, was born with cerebral palsy, autism, an intellectual disability and Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a degenerative nerve disease affecting his hands and feet.

He is 23, the youngest of three children born to John and Dianne Reynolds, also of Dunwoody.

The family joined First Baptist in 2012 after learning the church had a special needs ministry.

“Knowing how difficult it is for us to get to church to begin with, having an established ministry was such a blessing to us because we knew he’d be taken care of and taught in a very safe, secure environment,” Dianne Reynolds said.

Jason, she said, was 8 months old when doctors agreed with her that something was wrong.

“He was always fussy,” she said. “He was not meeting the developmental milestones and did not sleep more than two or three hours at a time because he had trouble calming.”

It helped when she could finally put a name to it all. She needed that before she could get help and apply for Medicaid services.

Like the Potters, the Reynoldses have never allowed Jason’s disabilities to define him.

“I try to expose him to as much as I possibly can,” his mother said.

This year marked Jason’s fourth date to “Night to Shine.” The first he attended was hosted by another local church.

“Because of his sensory issues, he really didn’t do well that first time,” Reynolds said. “Halfway through, he wanted to leave. He’d only been on the dance floor because Jennifer and I took him there. He spent a lot of time in the sensory room that night.”

A lot has changed since then. Jason, forever clutching a stuffed replica of Harry Potter’s owl Hedwig, is clearly doing the leading, from the red carpet to a karaoke room, where he sings the theme song to “Happy Days,” to the dining room, where he and Jennifer get their fill of Chick-fil-A nuggets, before heading out for one more limo ride around the church parking lot.

Every shrill he makes is an indication all’s right with the world.

Jason’s mom is beside herself. “Night to Shine” is a rare opportunity for her son.

Jason is 23 and in all those years, she said, he has been invited to only four parties. Four.

“This is wonderful,” she said.

A reminder of God’s love

As the clock ticked closer to 8 p.m., volunteers moved about the crowded dance floor crowning every special guest kings and queens.

Dale, still wearing his sunglasses, placed his crown on his top hat and kept dancing.

Tebow, whose foundation provides funds for the free event, appeared on the video screen high above the disc jockey, and the revelry stopped for just a moment.

“I hope you’re having the best night ever,” he told them. “This is all for you.”

He reminded them that God has a plan for their lives and to remember how beautiful they are “because that’s how God sees you every single day of your life.”

The Rev. Anthony George, senior associate pastor at First Baptist Atlanta, called Tebow “one of our heroes because he loves God and is always looking for ways to serve others.”

George then launched into a story about the stars of heaven, comparing each of them to the cosmic energy shining in the night sky.

“You are our stars,” he said. “God made you to bring light to our lives.”

With that and a prayer, First Baptist’s third annual “Night to Shine” came to a graceful end. Dale, Jason, their dates and nearly 300 other kings and queens walked out into the cold, cold night.