Ocoee resident Keaton Royal is among dozens of individuals with special needs who love attending the annual Night to Shine prom at First Baptist Church Windermere.
Many people have ongoing countdowns for holidays, birthdays and other special occasions.
For 29-year-old Keaton Royal, that special countdown is for Night to Shine at First Baptist Church Windermere — and it starts almost immediately after the prom event ends each year.
Night to Shine, a worldwide event hosted by the Tim Tebow Foundation, is described by the foundation as “an unforgettable prom night experience, centered on God’s love, for people with special needs ages 14 and older.” The event now is in its sixth year, and Friday, Feb. 7, will mark the fifth one that First Baptist Church Windermere has hosted.
Last year, 655 churches around the world hosted Night to Shine for nearly 100,000 guests with the help of 200,000 volunteers. Each guest is crowned king or queen for the evening and gets to walk the red carpet with cheering paparazzi, eat a catered meal and dance the night away with a buddy.
Keaton Royal, an Ocoee resident, is among more than 100 people with special needs who attend Night to Shine each year at the Windermere church. He is diagnosed with Williams syndrome and has developmental delays, and his mother, Cela Royal, said he looks forward to this special night all year.
“I love it and wish that it continues because it brings joy to these kids, and it brings joy to me as a parent to see such joy on my son’s face." - Cela Royal
“He is all excited about everything,” Cela Royal said. “Almost every year after it finishes, he is asking me if it is coming. He’s looking forward to it and we just finished (that year’s event). To be honest with you, at Night to Shine, it really is a joy for him. It’s hope, it’s excitement, it’s entertainment, it’s everything into one package … the perfect thing for him.”
Keaton and Cela Royal have been part of Night to Shine at the Windermere church since it began hosting the event five years ago.
Denise Burch, director of First Baptist Church Windermere’s special-needs ministry, said the decision to host the prom stemmed from Lead Pastor Chuck Carter and his wife, Gina. Burch said their son has autism and attended a school for students with autism growing up.
“During his senior year that school had a prom, and that was like his favorite thing,” she said. “So when he exited the school system his mom was like, ‘What am I going to do? He doesn’t have a prom to go to anymore and he looked forward to it.’ She discovered the Tim Tebow Foundation’s Night to Shine prom.”
Chuck Carter decided to surprise Gina Carter by applying to become a Night to Shine host church, Burch said. Once First Baptist Church Windermere was approved, Burch went into planning mode.
A team meets to plan Night to Shine right before the school year begins. Together, they discuss what was learned from the last event, along with what worked and what didn’t. Each team member has a responsibility for a part of the prom experience.
Registration for guests and volunteers typically begins by November. Guest registration stays open until the church reaches its event capacity. Burch said the typical guest capacity is 112, and each guest has his or her own escort.
“Our goal is to provide the most excellent experience we can, because that’s what God calls us to do as missionaries out here,” Burch said. “(Special-needs guests) don’t normally see that from the world. They’re kind of left out.”
And for Keaton and Cela Royal, First Baptist Church Windermere’s decision to host Night to Shine means the world. Cela Royal loves watching her son get out of the limousine and walk the red carpet. The wide, joyful smile on his face says it all.
“He’s hilarious about it — it’s everything to him, to be honest with you,” Cela Royal said. “He looks forward to meeting people, the excitement, being around people, dancing, hugs, the limo, the special attention. It’s amazing. I’m there taking the pictures. They’re doing this for all of these kids and to see the glow on their faces, the happiness, the joy, the excitement — they all just glow. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Weeks before Night to Shine, Keaton Royal’s suit already was hanging on his bedroom door. He loves wearing his crown from last year around the house, and he lights up at any chance to talk about his favorite event of the year.
“This is so awesome, and to see that Tim Tebow is doing such great things for these special-needs kids, I have high respect for him for starting this,” Cela Royal said. “It is so awesome there, and I haven’t come across one person with any negativity toward these kids. Everybody is helpful, happy, smiling, laughing.
“They’re doing such an awesome job (and) words cannot express how thankful (we are) and how awesome it is,” she said. “I love it and wish that it continues because it brings joy to these kids, and it brings joy to me as a parent to see such joy on my son’s face. …It brings tears to my eyes to see that people do care about these special-needs kids. I felt real good knowing that he’s accepted.”
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