‘It was like the disabilities weren’t there’

Published 11:08 pm Friday, February 9, 2018

Students celebrate each other at Night to Shine dance

While the first guest in line runs his hands over his yellow tie, the high schooler at his side coaxes hers around the crook of his elbow.

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In front of them is an open double doorway and an array of people who, if viewed from above, would look like a thermometer: two straight sides of high school students leading toward a bulb-shaped grouping of parents, guardians, siblings and volunteers huddled at the end, camera phones at the ready. It’s a red carpet scene without the red carpet, but complete with paparazzi.

As the guests come out, pair after pair, it’s not the sort of polite applause you hear after a particularly good golf swing, or the acknowledging but brief claps you give actors and actresses when they finish a musical number in the middle of a play.

These are “she just shot the free-throw that put our team in the lead” claps. They’re “someone just proposed in the middle of an airport” claps.

These claps will return later in the night, when the name of every guest is read out one by one. They’ll return — loudly — when one guest kneels to accept his crown as if he’s being knighted, walking back to his place in the circle of joyously celebrating people, high-fiving friends and classmates.

They return when, after each name is called, the announcers say, “It’s your time to shine.”

It’s all part of the Night to Shine prom-like experience intended to celebrate students with special needs in the community, hosted Friday night by First Lutheran Church.

“One of his dreams was to always go to prom,” Heidi Hensch said of her son, Morgan Hensch.

During the night, Morgan Hensch made his way over to the photo props with a pair of high school volunteers who were there for exactly that: to dance, make friends, and, of course, to take silly photos. Morgan Hensch donned a

red cowboy hat that reminded him of Woody from “Toy Story.” Remnants from a green feather, most likely escaped from a boa, clung to the hat’s brim as they snapped pictures.

Morgan Hensch said his favorite part of the evening was being around friends. He picked out a rhinestone-covered navy bowtie for the occasion, which he said he liked because it’s shiny.

It also helps that it’s blue — Morgan Hensch loves blue.

At Night to Shine, he is surrounded by it. The ceiling is supported by several white poles running along the room’s sides. Some are painstakingly wrapped in a teal tulle, while others are circled by fairy lights. One rogue pole near the stage started the night on a twinkle setting, calmly fading in and out. From the ceiling, paper globes dangle in teal, royal blue, navy and white. Balloons dot the room.

Even the cupcakes on a tiered stand at the food table are frosted with teal — the Tim Tebow Foundation, which established Night to Shine, also established the color scheme. On either side, the cupcakes are kept company by pizzas, potato chips, cheese, crackers and macaroni and cheese.

Night to Shine coordinator Becky Rognes said the night’s offerings are by design. When parents and guests sign up to be part of the evening, they note what the organizers should be aware of. This way, Rognes said it is relatively easy to plan for differing needs among diverse guests. They do their best to make it happen.

“One little boy can only have cotton candy, so we have it here for him,” Rognes said.

Lizzy Kunkel-Erickson, a high school student who volunteered with Night to Shine this year, spent the early part of the evening helping guests with makeup.

“They just want to feel like normal kids, and they want to have fun,” Kunkel-Erickson said.

Friday night’s dance followed a week where Kunkel-Erickson said the National Honor Society at Albert Lea High School led a “Spread the word to end the word” campaign. The school discussed the campaign at a school assembly, and during lunchtime, students could sign a banner pledging to uphold the campaign’s name.

But months before that, Albert Lea High School teacher Jennifer Taylor said students had been talking about Night to Shine.

“I don’t know who gets more excited — the kids who have special needs, or the kids who are here helping,” she said.

While Taylor said the high school does a good job of integrating its students, the evening is a great opportunity for them to spend time with each other.

“This gives them a real good chance to be together in an authentic environment,” Taylor said.

It’s that authentic, normal environment Kunkel-Erickson said is what she appreciates about Night to Shine.

“To me, it stresses that they, anyone who has a mental or physical handicap, is the same and can have the same experiences if you let them,” she said.

Parent Jay Cichosz said he believes everybody should have an experience like Night to Shine.

“Both groups of people — everybody here is getting something out of this,” Cichosz said of the volunteers and guests. At some point, these students may work with someone with special needs. They may marry into a family that includes someone with special needs. They may make friends with someone with special needs.

“This is one more step being comfortable with that,” he said.

Guest Gavin Cichosz, a senior, said showing up to Night to Shine that first year — this is his second — was initially a step out of the comfort zone.

“I was skeptical at first, but my mom kind of kept pressing the issue,” he said. “So my mom’s persistence got me here, I guess, and I have a lot of fun every time.”

Gavin Cichosz moved to Albert Lea, and both he and his parents said having an event like this is a change from their previous community.

Amy Cichosz said she noticed that, after last year’s dance, some of the high schoolers her son met at the dance became familiar faces and people to talk to.

“They don’t treat me differently because I have special needs,” Gavin Cichosz said.

Although he doesn’t consider himself a very social person, he said he has made an exception for the evening. What else are you going to do with a Friday night?

“You’ve always got Saturday and Sunday to recover, so there’s not much to lose,” he said.

Hunter Johnson also attended the event last year with his mother, Nikki Johnson. Nikki Johnson said she liked getting the chance to see her son be independent at this event, and to see all those on the dance floor enjoying themselves.

“It was like the disabilities weren’t there,” Nikki Johnson said.

During one song, each of Hunter Johnson’s hands were captured by the hand of a student in a black dress, who twirled themselves around him like a pinwheel.

Hunter Johnson said the dancing was why he came back for another year.

“It’s awesome,” he said — two thumbs up.

About Sarah Kocher

Sarah covers education and arts and culture for the Tribune.

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