The congregation started its special needs ministry — HALOS, which stands for Helping All Love Our Savior — in 2014, the same year the Tim Tebow Foundation started formulating the idea for Night to Shine, a prom-style event for people age 14 and up with special needs.
“That year, it was just Tebow’s church and a few others that he had reached out to, so we applied, not thinking we would actually get to be a part,” Armstrong noted. “We’re not a big church.”
But the next year, Hillcrest was one of 44 churches across 26 states and three countries that hosted Night to Shine. This year, there were hundreds of host sites worldwide.
“It’s changed a lot since we started, but it’s always been really good,” said Armstrong, Hillcrest’s director of HALOS and coordinator for the event.
Up until 2020, Night to Shine was fashioned like a prom, with each host site taking guidance from TTF and making it their own. For example, as part of the evening, volunteers might help guests with hair and makeup, then drive them in a limousine or convertible to the event venue where a crowd lined a red carpet. Each guest was then paired with a buddy who spent the evening with them, with dancing and karaoke, or for a few lucky sites, even a visit from Tebow, the well-known Christian speaker, author and sports personality.
But in 2021, the format changed because of COVID-19 concerns, especially since members of the special needs community often face additional medical issues. Night to Shine became Shine-Thru, a drive-thru event guests could attend before going home to watch a virtual party sponsored by TTF.
This year — on Feb. 11 — followed that same format, with nearly 450 churches across the nation and in 39 countries hosting.
During the evening Tebow and his wife, Demi, visited several locations in Africa, including the first-ever Night to Shine in Cape Town, South Africa.
Armstrong said last year Hillcrest had to adapt twice — first they made a plan for multiple drive-thru stations, but had to condense everything to fit under two tents when it rained.
But this year, they were ready for anything — and they had beautiful weather, she said.
A DJ played in the parking lot, and volunteers went to guests’ cars to dance with them and hand them a microphone for karaoke.
“We had the ROTC saluting them as they came in and started down the red carpet, and we had welcomers on each side of the red carpet ‘ride,’” Armstrong said.
Volunteers gave guests crowns and tiaras and also held up a frame so they could have photos taken in their car. Local baseball pro Eli Whiteside, a retired San Francisco Giants catcher, gave out pre-signed baseballs.
There also was a pet station where guests could pet animals and those who brought their pets with them could get treats.
Each guest went home with a Chick-Fil-A meal, and parents went home with a Bible and devotional book.
“We wanted to make sure we planted spiritual seeds too,” Armstrong said, noting all the parents are very appreciative. “Seeing one person smile is worth every bit of it. Just bringing joy and Christ’s love to them is the highlight of the night.”
A community thing
Travis Sparks said for his church — Corinth Baptist in Gaffney, South Carolina — hosting Night to Shine has offered a chance to show Christ’s love and pull the community together.
“The Lord put it on our hearts years ago,” said Sparks, associate pastor of worship and students.
He’s had a connection with the special needs community his whole life — his mother taught at a special needs school, his first job was working as a special needs assistant and his son is now a special needs teacher.
“There was a kind of a hole for Night to Shine right where we sit in that I-85 corridor, so we applied to be a host site,” Sparks recalled. “But it was a big challenge for us. We run 175 to 200 on Sundays, and that first year (2020) we had 100 special guests sign up, so we needed 100 buddies in addition to other volunteers.”
That prompted the congregation to reach out to local schools, Beta Club and surrounding youth groups, and everyone pulled together to make Night to Shine happen.
“It became a community thing immediately,” Sparks said. “It’s a county-wide event.”
The church has used it as a way to show the community they want to be a space where everyone is welcome. They also recently updated playground equipment to include two handicap-accessible swings.
“We want to say, ‘It’s not just one night a year that we want to be accessible to you — we want to be accessible year-round,’” Sparks said.
For more information about Night to Shine visit timtebowfoundation.org/ministries/night-to-shine.