Gators participate in Tebow Foundation’s ‘Night to Shine’

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Florida Gators quarterback Feleipe Franks escorts Ella Zsembik down the red carpet during the annual Night to Shine event at Legacy Park on Friday. The Tim Tebow Foundation hosts the Night to Shine prom night experience for people with special needs ages 14 and older. [Lauren Bacho/Staff Photographer]

ALACHUA — It was a night of dancing and singing and hugs, glamorous gowns on the red carpet and photos with football players.

This year’s Night to Shine, an annual prom for people with special needs sponsored by the Tim Tebow Foundation, featured a little bit of everything.

The event, held in a spacious auditorium at Legacy Park, included 240 guests, 400 volunteers and 300 caregivers, event spokeswoman Kristen Thompson said. All guests were introduced on the red carpet as snapshots were taken paparazzi-style. The prom event also included plenty of food, decorations, and rides in limos and party buses.

Friday night was Night to Shine’s fifth year, and was expected to entertain more than 100,000 guests at some 655 locations at churches around the world, mostly in the U.S. It’s aimed at those 14 and up.

Tebow didn’t make this year’s Alachua County event, but a handful of current Gator football players did, including starting quarterback Feleipe Franks, wide receivers Tyrie Cleveland, Trevon Grimes and Van Jefferson and punter Tommy Townsend. Franks showed he could do more than dance in the pocket as he boogied and posed for pictures with prom guests.

“To be able to come out here and make someone’s day, it definitely feels special,” Franks said.

Franks and Townsend both made their second straight trips to the event after attending last year.

“I wouldn’t have come back if it wasn’t special,” Townsend said. “To be able to interact with the participants and to see how much it means to them, it makes you feel good to be able to give back.”

Mackenzie Carter of Alachua again served as an event volunteer, escorting one of the guests, Troy Wright of Gainesville.

“This is what I do every year for my birthday,” Carter said. “I look forward to it every year. This night is about them to see the smiles on their faces, it just lights me up.”

Wright was all smiles as he posed for pictures with a volunteer dressed in a Cinderella costume. After pictures, he couldn’t resist asking her for a dance.

“It was awesome,” Wright said.

Another guest, Cody Jones of Starke, enjoyed both going on the red carpet and in the karaoke room, where he watched participants sing Alicia Keys’ “Fallin’” and Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” But Jones said what he likes best is getting out on the dance floor.

“I like all the songs,” Jones said.

The night ended with a video message with Tebow, who crowned all of the participants the kings and queens of the prom.

“We love you, you matter,” Tebow said on the video message. “I hope you all dance the night away.”

6 COMMENTS

  1. Don’t get me wrong…I absolutely love following Gator football but it is great to read stories like this…to remind us that how much more there is to life than just football.

    It was not surprising to read that some of the players are repeats at this event. My guess is that the players get more out of this event than the friends they escorted to the prom. For many years, I have had the pleasure of being around the Special Olympics and other similar events that promote individuals with developmental disabilities. My observation has been that the volunteers are usually so inspired and moved that they keep coming back for more, year after year…they love it!

    Good job to the players and thanks to the Sun for sharing this story!

  2. I was a volunteer at Night to Shine and I want to commend the players that were there. Coach Mullen should be very proud of his guys. Franks, Townsend, Grimes, Cleveland, and Jefferson all fully participated in the evening’s festivities. Tommy and a couple of other gentlemen sang karaoke with the guests. They all stood tirelessly on the red carpet greeting everyone and making each guest feel like royalty. They danced and patiently took pictures with anyone that approached them. These are five outstanding faces of the Gator Nation! Thank you go much guys!!

  3. These young men work hard, go to class full time, are in a difficult offseason training program and are probably studying film and getting ready for spring ball. They deserve a break on the weekends and shouldn’t be expected to do charity events like this. They deserve and have all the right to simply hang out with their friends and relax. That’s exactly why I’m so proud of these young MEN. Many would simply say they have too much going on or don’t have the time because of school and football but instead they gave us a reason to be proud of them off the field. Well done fellas.