The former NFL quarterback sponsors 44 proms around the world for people with special needs

By Steve Helling
Updated February 20, 2015 09:55 AM
Credit: Tim Tebow Foundation

There were gowns. There were tuxedos. And, yes, there was dancing.

Feb. 13 was prom night for more than 7,000 people with special needs, courtesy of the Tim Tebow Foundation.

The former NFL quarterback’s charity sponsored 44 simultaneous Night to Shine proms in 26 states, as well as locations in Uganda and Kenya. Local churches did much of the organizing, aided by the foundation.

The night had some big surprises.

Tebow, a SEC Network Analyst, first flew to Kernersville, North Carolina, to show up – unannounced – at one of the proms.

After mingling with the crowd for an hour, he flew to Simpsonville, South Carolina, to surprise another group. He escorted kids down the red carpet, posed for pictures, and even shined a few shoes.

For Tebow, the event was more than just glamour and glitter; it was an opportunity to provide a special night for people with special needs – people who often have few opportunities to dress up for a fancy event. Tebow and his team were frequently moved to tears as families recounted their struggles and experiences.

“When you simply spend time together,” Tebow tells PEOPLE, “you can begin to turn statistics into stories.”

As for the business of selecting prom kings and queens, there was no scheming, politicking or voting. Everyone received a crown or tiara. The message was clear: for that night, they were all kings and queens. Unsurprisingly, the attendees were ecstatic to receive their crowns.

“When this project began, we hoped that on this night, the churches would shine, the volunteers would shine, Christ would shine and our guests would feel like kings and queens,” says Erik Dellenback, executive director of the Tim Tebow Foundation. “We believe that’s exactly what happened!”

The Night to Shine event is one of newest facets of Tebow’s foundation. In December, the foundation opened a hospital in the Philippines.

The Florida-based organization also includes Timmy’s Playrooms in children’s hospitals, the W15H program and Orphan Care, a program that provides grants to families adopting children with special needs.

“Everyone should do something greater than themselves,” Tebow told PEOPLE last November. “That’s why we’re here.”

Tebow hopes that the prom was the first of many annual events – and there’s already a waiting list of churches who want to throw proms in 2016.

As for Tebow, he says he had a fantastic night at the proms. “Words cannot adequately express the joy that I experienced during Night to Shine,” Tebow tells PEOPLE. “If I think about 44 churches in 26 states and 3 countries, with more than 15,000 volunteers and 7,000 guests, it is very humbling and overwhelming.”

For an inside look at Tebow’s prom night, check out the video below.