What most Italians know about proms, they learned from watching American sitcoms or dubbed-over versions of 90210. The "prom" is a uniquely American event. Still, Italians flocked to a prom in Rome Tuesday night - this one held for people with special needs, and organized by minor league baseball player Tim Tebow.
Night to Shine, a prom for people with special needs held Feb. 4 for the first time in Rome, was an evening of joyful celebration, according to guests and volunteers in attendance.
“We are so excited to be here in Italy, so excited to be here in Rome,” Tim Tebow told EWTN News before the event.
“Hopefully [Night to Shine] is something God-honoring,” he added.
— Courtney Mares (@catholicourtney) February 4, 2020
Tebow and his wife, Miss Universe 2017 Demi-Leigh Nel-Peters, were both in attendance at the dance. But the dance floor, not the celebrities, was the center of attention at Night to Shine.
Serena Silvi, a woman with Down syndrome, told CNA she felt “good, excited, happy,” and was “having fun,” at the dance.
“It’s truly a moment of great joy,” volunteer Anna Perluigi said, as she watched guests dance into the night.
Her sentiment was echoed by Annalisa Bellesini, who came with her daughter Lelia, who has Down syndrome.
“Not only the kids, but also the parents are happy,” Bellesini said, noting that some of the moms in attendance were dancing alongside their children.
“It’s a moment of celebration.”
“Night to Shine” proms are organized in cities across the U.S. and in Europe. The events, which invite people with disabilities 14 and older, are modeled after a typical high school prom in the United States, and include dancing, music, food, a ride in a fancy car, and a photo booth.
Hosted by local churches and volunteers, the proms take place with sponsorship by the Tim Tebow Foundation.
Rome’s Night to Shine, held at the European University of Rome, was also supported by the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life and hosted by Nostra Signora di Guadalupe parish.
Tebow told EWTN News that part of Night to Shine’s purpose is to let people with special needs know “they matter, that they have significance -- and more than just to us, but to the God of this universe, because we believe that everybody has value, everybody has meaning.
“God loves every single person. They were created in love, by love, and for love and God loves them just the way they are,” Tebow added.
Arriving to a crowd of cheering volunteers and taking a walk down a red carpet Tuesday, the Rome event’s guests had the opportunity to have their hair and makeup done by professionals before the night of dancing.
The royal treatment culminated in the crowning of each guest as prom king or queen.
There was also a separate room for parents and caregivers, and for guests who needed a break from dancing.
Nino Mesavic, 26, told CNA he loved the music and the red carpet.
“I love to dance, it’s my passion,” Benedetta Bianchine, 28, added.
Serena Silvi’s mom said it is important for people with special needs to come together and celebrate.
For them “to have a party, to be together, is very important I think.”
“I can do many things for my daughter, we go to the movie theater and so on, but it is just me and her. This is a different thing, a party with many people.”
Paolo Vitali de Bonda, father of 38-year-old Alexander, said the “welcome is stupendous.”
Tebow and Nel-Peters, who married last month in South Africa, also attended the general audience of Pope Francis Feb. 5, meeting the pope afterward.
Tebow, who is an outspoken Christian and former college and professional football player, said he has had a heart for people with special needs since he was a teenager.
The athlete said he has long known his “calling was to fight for people who couldn’t fight for themselves.”
“I believe God has called us to a lot of things but the two greatest are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, and all our mind, and all our strength, and to love our neighbor as [we love] ourselves; and so I want to spend the rest of my life trying to do those two things,” he told EWTN News.
Tebow began Night to Shine events in 2014. According to the Tim Tebow Foundation website, 100,000 guests participated in 2019.
Many of the 2020 proms will take place on Feb. 7, the foundation said. It expects 721 churches in 50 U.S. states and 34 countries to participate, with over 110,000 people with special needs in attendance.