On his way to Haiti, Tim Tebow can hardly contain his excitement. “I’ve really been looking forward to Valentine’s Day weekend,” he tells PEOPLE as the plane touches down in Port-au-Prince. “This is going to be awesome.”
But Valentine’s Day weekend means something different to the single Tebow than it does to most people. Sure, there are flowers, dancing and candy hearts – but it’s just not a romantic holiday. The love goes deeper than that.
It’s the kickoff of Night to Shine – a worldwide simultaneous prom event for people with special needs. The numbers are staggering for an event in its second year: last weekend, there were 200 events in 48 states and 7 countries: the U.S., Uganda, Haiti, New Zealand, Ecuador, Kenya and the Philippines.
More than 32,000 people with special needs attended one of the proms, which were staffed by more than 70,000 volunteers. Directors of the the Tim Tebow Foundation had worked nonstop to plan every detail.
Night to Shine is a big deal for the former NFL quarterback and current SEC Network analyst. “We work towards this all year,” he says. “Our whole point – our whole reason for doing this – is to show these people that they matter. They matter to me. They matter to people who love them. They matter to God.”
Celebrating the Marginalized
While most of the proms took place on February 12, the one in Haiti was scheduled for the previous evening at the campus of My Life Speaks, an American-run organization that provides orphan care.
Marginalized and disabled children and teens came from all over the country to attend the event – perhaps the first time in their lives they’d ever been celebrated.
“It’s just so important to me,” Tebow, 28, says. “I’ve always had a burden for people who can’t fight for themselves. The disabled are often bullied and told in a million ways that they’re not important. Well, they are important, and this is a night for them to realize that they are important – and for the community to actually see them and celebrate them.
As if to reinforce his point, people from the nearby village stood outside, looking quizzically through the windows at the event. They watched all night as people with severe disabilities were honored.
“There are people who look at the disabled as being cursed,” Tebow says. “But they’re now watching them being celebrated. I hope that can change the narrative, not just in Haiti, but everywhere.”
A Night to Remember
It was a hot, muggy night in Haiti. Recent rains had made the dirt roads muddy, and standing water added to the area’s mosquito problem. Girls arrived at the prom in formal gowns caked with mud at the bottom. Boys wore suits and ties.
As the participants walked along the red carpet, volunteers – including Tebow – stood nearby, cheering for them. “It’s probably the first time many of them have been applauded,” Tebow explains.
For the Haitian participants, Tebow’s presence wasn’t the big deal that it might have been in America. They knew little about his football career. And that was just fine by Tebow. “This is their night, not mine,” he says. “It should be about celebrating them.”
And celebrate they did. There were areas where the girls could choose clothes and get their hair done. Caregivers were pampered too, with an exclusive lounge for them to relax while volunteers kept an eye on the participants. Plates of food were served.
But the high point of the night was the crowning. Unlike a standard prom where one king and queen is crowned, everyone gets a crown or a tiara at a Night to Shine event. They beamed as the crowns were placed upon their heads.
And then came the dancing.
Some of the dancers had Down Syndrome. Others used wheelchairs. One boy – who was a really good dancer – was deaf, and moved along with the vibrations of the pounding bass.
By now, darkness had fallen, but the party continued. Tebow stayed longer than expected. “It was just too much fun to leave,” he says.
While the participants had a fantastic night, so did Tebow. In the SUV ride back to the airport, he reflected on Night to Shine, an event that he hopes will continue for many years.
“It was so powerful,” he tells PEOPLE. “We weren’t just throwing a party; we were celebrating life. We’re not in this just to throw parties. We’re in this to show people that they’re special, they’re loved, and that God has a plan for their lives.
“We’re in it so that people, no matter their needs, understand that they matter. They’re not cursed at all. They are very blessed, and we were blessed to be able to celebrate them.”