Night to Shine prom grows

Local church part of worldwide event

When guests with special needs dance the night away at Florence United Methodist Church on Feb. 10, they will be part of an international event.

Night to Shine is a prom program sponsored by the Tim Tebow Foundation to share God’s love for people with special needs. It’s designed to provide an unforgettable night of fun where guests are treated like kings and queens. And they get the crowns to prove it.

In all 50 states and in 11 countries, 375 churches are designating Feb. 10 as Night to Shine, according to the foundation’s website. Churches that want to host a prom apply to the foundation, which provides help and guidance, including manuals, prom kits and funds. The prom program started in 2015 with events at 44 churches. The number jumped to 201 last year.

That’s when Florence United Methodist Church got involved. Now it’s preparing to host its second prom, and if registration numbers are any indication, the night will shine brightly in Northern Kentucky.

Church member Kevin Meyer is organizing the event. We talked last week at the church, on Old Toll Road, during breaks at orientation and training for Night to Shine volunteers.

After crowning about 70 guests at its first prom last year, the church had planned this year for 85 guests, Meyer said. A recent spark in registrations, however, prompted organizers to regroup and refigure. They created more space for guests and accepted more registrations, bringing the total for the night to 105.

Still there’s a waiting list. While organizers want to welcome as many guests as possible, Meyer said, they must balance that with ensuring a comfortable space.

Last year’s event had a lasting impact on the church, Meyer said.  Seeing how God worked, how the volunteers focused on the guests, how much genuine love was shared –  these aspects made the prom “one of those life moments,” Meyer said, when you know “this is how you make a difference.”

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Guests fill the floor at last year’s Night to Shine prom at Florence United Methodist Church.

Royal treatment

The first stop on prom night will be check-in at Erpenbeck Elementary on Wetherington Boulevard in Florence. That’s where guests, who must be at least 14, will meet the volunteer buddies who will escort them for the night. Need hair and makeup done? That’s covered here. Guests can get their shoes shined too.

What about flowers? Guests can select boutonnieres and wrists corsages. And they can have their photos taken. Those photos, if all the technology runs smoothly, will be part of the gift bag they’ll receive at the end of the night.

Next a limousine will whisk them from the school to the church, less than a mile away. At the church, buddies will crown the guests, who will then walk the red carpet amid cheers from adoring fans and camera flashes from paparazzi.

Jeff Evans from Christian radio station STAR 93.3 has been tapped to announce each guest, and FOX 19 morning anchors Dan Wells and Kara Sewell are slated to greet each guest at the end of the red carpet, Meyer said.

Once inside, guests can enjoy heavy appetizers from Barleycorn’s, Gigi’s cupcakes, karaoke, music, dancing, a recorded message from celebrity athlete and foundation founder Tim Tebow and a balloon drop. A quiet room will be available for guests who may need a break from the activities.

For safety, all volunteers are required to have background checks and training about disabilities. Also, nurses, emergency medical technicians and law enforcement personnel will be at the church and school to help ensure everyone has a healthy and safe time, Meyer said.

Parents and caregivers who prefer to stay on site are welcome to visit a respite area offering food, games, movies, activities and a place to talk with one another.

While the Tim Tebow Foundation provides funding, Meyer said the church couldn’t host as big of an event without the help of area businesses, who are pitching in with donated and discounted goods and services. Add to that the 275 volunteers, and you’ve got a community coming together for the special night.

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Mike Dardis of WLWT was an emcee at last year’s Night to Shine. Prom organizer Kevin Meyer is pictured on the right.

Fun with friends

Kelsey Coleman is looking forward to the big night and has happy memories from last year’s prom, she told me over the phone earlier this week.

“It was fun when we got to ride in the limo with the escorts, and we got to walk on the red carpet,” she said. Her absolute favorite thing? “I had fun dancing with all my friends.”

Brigitte Coleman made sure her daughter got signed up as soon as they heard registration was open for this year’s prom. “She did not want to miss it,” she said.

Brigitte said she appreciates the February prom being held in addition to the Royal Prom, which occurs at Crossroads church in September. A prom around Valentine’s Day creates an opportunity for couples and friends to celebrate together, she said.

Even though she did not use the respite area, Brigitte said it was a welcome offering. And she said she enjoyed seeing Kelsey get to ride in a limo.

Events like the prom help people with special needs expand their social circles, Brigitte said. They meet each others’ friends, she said, and create relationships with volunteers so that they are included more in society.

“I would love to see other things come from this at other churches,” Brigitte said.

A need to help

Catherine Willis sat in one of the blue-cushioned, metal-framed chairs at Florence United Methodist Church last week waiting under the high peaked ceiling for orientation to begin. A first-time Night to Shine volunteer, Willis is a paraeducator at Ockerman Middle School. She sat with her daughter Emily Edwards, a teacher at New Haven Elementary in the autism unit, who had told her about the volunteer opportunity.

“We needed to help,” Willis said. “[Everyone] should have an opportunity to enjoy every aspect of life, and they shouldn’t be limited by any perceived disability that they have.”

People with special needs, she said, should be surrounded by people who want to bring out the best in them.

Volunteers at last year’s prom also benefited from the experience. “I think we learned a lot from the guests about how to enjoy life,” Meyer said.

He noted how grateful the church is for support from the community, local businesses and the Tim Tebow Foundation. “The response from the community to this event,” Meyer said, “is just an example of the type of community we are all blessed to be a part of.”

Photos provided.

A gift of family fun

An Old Kentucky Christmas to open early for families with special needs

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Crowded, fast-paced holiday celebrations can be daunting for a family that cares for a member with special needs. To help with that, a Northern Kentucky church is opening its popular community Christmas event an hour early just for families like ours.

From 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 10, First Church of Christ in Burlington invites special needs families to enjoy An Old Kentucky Christmas before the event opens to the general public. The early opening will allow families to decorate cookies, make candles and play games in the 1800s-era village amid smaller crowds and at a more relaxed pace.

“Our biggest hope is just to be able to give the special needs families the same opportunity to have those family traditions that so many who come into the village get to enjoy throughout the weekend,” said Alissa Lancaster, First Church’s ministry leader for An Old Kentucky Christmas.

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Decorate and enjoy a treat from Grandma’s Cookies.

For the whole family

This is the fifth year for the free event, created to evoke a simpler time and to bring families together. It has been so successful that last year more than 12,000 people attended over four days, Lancaster told me in a phone interview last week. For people with special needs, though, those kinds of crowds can be overwhelming.

So overwhelming, in fact, that some families have told organizers that they couldn’t bring children with sensory issues, autism and other challenges that may make navigating a crowd difficult. After conversations with families and the visit last year of a group of middle school students with autism, the church planned this year’s special hour.

‘They can really come and just enjoy it and not feel like they have to rush through or be concerned about the crowds.’

— Alissa Lancaster, ministry leader for An Old Kentucky Christmas

“We don’t want anybody to feel like they have to exclude a family member,” Lancaster said. “They can really come and just enjoy it and not feel like they have to rush through or be concerned about the crowds. … That should make it easier for everybody, the whole family, to come together and enjoy it.”

The church is offering the special hour this year with the hopes of expanding it next year. Organizers want to see what works and what more they could do to help special needs families share Christmas traditions and memories.

“We’re not sure where we’ll go with it from here,” Lancaster said, noting that possibilities included adding more time next year on Saturday morning or somewhere else in the event’s four-day schedule.

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Greeters in pioneer attire welcome guests.

Pioneer Village fun

Over the phone, Lancaster walked me through a typical visit to An Old Kentucky Christmas, which takes place outside and inside the church at 6080 Camp Ernst Road in Burlington. Transformed into the Pioneer Village, the church offers a multitude of activities and demonstrations. Everything is free.

As guests enter the village, Lancaster said, volunteers in pioneer attire greet them at the welcome center. Here visitors can get a map of the village, a note card to mark each stop they make and a goodie bag to hold items they receive during their visit.

The main outdoor stops include Wicks and Wax, where families can learn how to dip a candle to take home. Next guests might visit Sweet Tooth Candy, where they can make a chocolate- and sprinkle-coated pretzel rod.

At Woodworks, visitors can see a demonstration of 1800s work-working equipment and decorate their own wooden ornament. At the village Petting Zoo, the bunnies are especially popular, Lancaster said.

Outreach letters to spread cheer

At the School House, guests can write and draw on an older style chalk board. Then, with charcoal pencils, they can sign letters of support and holiday cheer for people in the community including patients at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and local police officers, firefighters and nursing home residents.

Guests can mail their letters at a post office housed at the General Store. The store also will serve hot chocolate, which guests can drink to wash down the sugar cookies they make at Grandma’s Cookies.

At the Village Church, guests hear the story of the candy cane and make a candy cane ornament. Horse-drawn carriage rides around the village are also popular, Lancaster said.

Inside activities include dulcimer musicians playing Christmas music, quilting demonstrations and pioneer games such as checkers, marbles, tops and ring toss.

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Dulcimer musicians play Christmas music.

Family photos for everyone

One of the favorite indoor attractions, Lancaster said, is the family photo station. There a photographer takes a family photo against a pioneer backdrop. Each family gets a print of the photo at the event and an emailed copy later.

“It’s so special for everybody to be able to walk away with that Christmas photo of their family,” Lancaster said.

Christmas should be a time to experience fun with family, Lancaster said, but so many families don’t have the ability to attend costly holiday events. That’s where An Old Kentucky Christmas comes in, she said. “The biggest reason we do this is to provide a gift to the community.”

It seems fitting. Here’s an event created to celebrate the simple joys of the Christmas season. Now its organizers are taking time to offer an even simpler experience to families caring for members with special needs. No strings or ribbons or wrapping attached. Only wishes for a joyful experience for the whole family.

 If you go

What: An hour at An Old Kentucky Christmas for special needs families only

When: Saturday, Dec. 10, 2016, from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m.

Where: First Church of Christ, 6080 Camp Ernst Road in Burlington, KY

 

An Old Kentucky Christmas Schedule

Thursday, Dec. 8 – Village hours from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.; performance by the Ryle High School choir at 7 p.m.

Friday, Dec. 9 – Village hours from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.; candlelight service of music and inspiration at 7 p.m.

Saturday, Dec. 10 – Village hours from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m.; candlelight service of music and inspiration at 5 p.m. and 7 p.m.

Sunday, Dec. 11 – Village hours from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m.;  candlelight service of music and inspiration at 5 p.m. and 7 p.m.

For more information, call (859) 586-4673 or visit www.anoldkentuckychristmas.com.

Top photo: A girl dips a candle at Wicks and Wax.

Photos provided.

Share and inspire

How do you share the joy and meaning of the holidays with your family? I’m collecting ideas for a future article. Please send me a quick email at angie.mimms@gmail.com. Or you can write me through the Contact section of the blog. Here’s a post I wrote to explain more about what I’m doing. Happy holidays!

Share and inspire

During the holidays, where do you find fun, meaning?

In my neighborhood during these early days of December, the nighttime streets are getting brighter and brighter as my neighbors, one-by-one, string Christmas lights along their homes and in their yards.

I enjoy this gradual awakening to the holiday season. The neighbors who choose to decorate do so in their own way, in their own time, and I get to be surprised as I drive along at night to see what new lights and displays went up before the sun went down.

Most years we – and by “we” I mean my husband – get our lights up, but some years we don’t. Some years the weather doesn’t cooperate or family circumstances keep us too busy or work obligations limit our time. Still we can drive along our street and find holiday inspiration in our neighbors’ lights.

In the midst of this season, I hope we can bring each other inspiration right here at Special Needs Northern Kentucky.

Joys and challenges

Like putting up light displays, celebrating the holidays is full of joys as well as challenges. That’s certainly true for families who have members with special needs.

As we plan our holidays, we consider the health, behavior and abilities of our loved ones. We try to find balance, elusive and mysterious as it may be. We strive to create a glow and warmth to our holidays for everyone in our families.

While we all have our unique situations, I thought we might help each other by sharing what we’ve learned along the twinkle-lighted holiday road.

How do you celebrate the holidays?

I’m wondering about the ways you celebrate the holidays in Northern Kentucky with your loved ones with special needs. Where do you find fun? Where do you find meaning?

Where do you go, what do you do, what events do you attend that bring you the joy of the season?

What’s out there that serves well families dealing with special needs? Have you ever been unsure initially about a place or event only to be surprised by how good your experience was?

Do you celebrate at home in ways that you’ve found to bring particular delight and meaning?

Share your thoughts

I hope you will share your thoughts and comments, ideas and suggestions. Please send them to angie.mimms@gmail.com by Wednesday, Dec. 7. I’ll compile your responses into a post that I hope will be full of holiday inspiration.

I look forward to reading and sharing your responses along with getting some fresh ideas for celebrating the holiday season with my own family. In the meantime, my wish for you is that you enjoy the beautiful lights along the road.

Grace and gratitude

Father reflects on kindness of peers, community

During November, readers were invited to share stories of thanks from along the road. Here is the final guest post for the month. Thanks to everyone who contributed. Thank you for sharing your words, your hearts and your children.

by Greg Ashcraft

I thank God every day that my daughter Grace came into my life.

During this month of Thanksgiving, I reflect on the positive impact her peers and community have had on Grace, who is 12 and has Down syndrome.

Grace’s peers at school accept her not because of her disability but because of her personality. Every day she goes to school, and every day she comes home happy.

This year at Gray Middle School, some of Grace’s classmates won a limo ride for the day. Before they took the ride, I received a call asking if Grace could go. I knew she did not win the contest and asked why she was invited. One of Grace’s peers, I was told, wanted to give their spot to Grace so she could experience the limo ride.

 I was so thankful. The limo ride meant a lot to Grace. She was so excited and loved sitting in the car and driving around with her friends. They went to lunch at Flipdaddy’s. I will forever be grateful to the child who showed such kindness.

The biggest worry I have as a father is whether my children will have friends. I am thankful that Grace has many friends. I am most thankful for her best friend, Jayden Wren, because he means so much to her and would do anything for her.

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Grace and Jayden getting ready to trick-or-treat on the golf cart.

Jayden and Grace became friends in second grade. Jayden, who has always been Grace’s peer helper, makes her smile every day and takes the worry away. They go to school dances together, ride a golf cart together and pull crazy pranks on Grace’s brother and sister.

They have a great time, and Jayden is always there when Grace needs him. I am thankful he came into her life.

As Grace’s father, I’ve learned that you can’t worry about what other people think, that you have to let your special needs child be a kid. I will end with a line I heard on a TV show. The father of a special needs child was asked why he didn’t care what people think. His reply: Because when you have a special needs child, you become bullet proof.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Greg Ashcraft trains and coaches youth athletes in Northern Kentucky. He is a husband and a father of three.

Photos provided.

 

 

Why am I thankful?

Son’s stroke changes mother’s outlook

Readers share their stories of thanks from along the road. I’ll be posting them through this Thanksgiving month. Even though the original deadline has passed, I would love to read more. So if you’re inspired, please consider writing and submitting. Check here for guidelines.

by Jennifer Putnam

It’s funny how what you are thankful for can change from day to day. Six years ago, my son Aiden had a massive stroke and that changed a lot about the way I look at the world.

I used to be so concerned about what Aiden was doing compared to everyone else. I was thankful on the days when he made his way up to the top of the pack with whatever task he was attempting.  And then, in the blink of an eye, my focus completely changed. Now my biggest worry is if he will have a happy and independent life, and I am thankful for every small achievement he makes.

I am thankful for the family and friends we have made along my son’s journey as well as the friends who have stuck with us through all the highs and lows. I will be the first to say that it isn’t always easy to be my friend. I have days where I miss our old life and I can be grumpy and no fun to be around. I also need a lot of help because I can never seem to get our hectic schedule right and I am constantly double-booking appointments. I am lucky that my family has found trusted friends willing to pitch in and be a part of our village.  They pick me up when I am down and are always willing to shuttle my family from place to place.

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Aiden and his mom, Jennifer.

As a parent of a special needs child, I think the things that I am truly thankful for may be different from those of many “average” families. I have been known to do a happy dance in the middle of my driveway upon opening a letter from my insurance company letting me know that some previously denied service will now be covered. I am thankful for hospital schedulers who listen to all my crazy questions and spend hours with me on the phone making sure that all my son’s appointments are properly scheduled. And if I can squeeze multiple visits into one trip across the river, I may just cry tears of joy.

I know I am blessed because even after all he has been through, my Aiden walks through life with a smile on his face and love in his heart.

I am thankful for the nights when Aiden puts on his nightly stretching brace without compliant even though I know the brace, which keeps his right hand from becoming a permanently closed fist, hurts him and makes it hard for him to sleep. I know I am blessed because even after all he has been through, my Aiden walks through life with a smile on his face and love in his heart.

Now six years after Aiden’s stroke, I have learned to appreciate all the little things that never crossed my mind to be grateful for before.  My family celebrated with ice cream on the night Aiden brought home his standardized test scores and was one level up from the bottom because we were all so thankful that he was not on the bottom level.  The day he rode a bike again turned into an all-night party, and the video of him catching and throwing a baseball made him an internet sensation. At least within our family.

But most of all, I am thankful for the “normal” days. The days without doctor’s appointments and therapies. I love the days when my family wakes up and has breakfast together and stays in jammies until noon.  Or the nights when we snuggle by the fireplace and watch a movie together and everyone gets along.

I spend an unrealistic part of my life worrying about the future. Will my son go to college?  Will he drive a car, get married or have children?  Most of all, will he be happy?  So much of the time I can’t seem to turn off my brain from these things, but the normal days keep me in the moment and keep my brain out of the unknown future.  Some people don’t even think about normal days, but for me, they are something that makes me truly thankful.

 Jennifer Putnam is a small business owner, substitute teacher, wife and mother of three. She enjoys writing in her free time.

Photos provided.

 

 

Join us for fall fun

Here’s the update I promised in an earlier post, Special Needs NKy awarded grant, about the community event that’s part of the myNKY Nano Grant program. I hope you can come out and enjoy the day!

Picnic in the Park with Pumpkins

Sunday, October 30, 2016

South Fork Park in Florence

2 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Families dealing with disability or special needs are invited to gather at the park shelter for food, treats, games and music. Enjoy a playground, walking trail, basketball and volleyball courts and lots of open space to play.

You are welcome to wear your Halloween costumes. Bring chairs or blankets if you’d like to spread out.

Please RSVP with the number in your family by Tuesday, Oct. 25, to angie.mimms@gmail.com.