Night to Shine gives Baldwin County special needs community a venue for dancing and delight

By Allison Marlow
Managing Editor
Posted 2/17/23

Steam rises off Emily Grant's hair as a volunteer carefully runs a straightening iron down each lock.

Grant, 29, of Daphne, strains slightly to watch as her brown ponytail is transformed into a …

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Night to Shine gives Baldwin County special needs community a venue for dancing and delight


Steam rises off Emily Grant's hair as a volunteer carefully runs a straightening iron down each lock.

Grant, 29, of Daphne, strains slightly to watch as her brown ponytail is transformed into a neatly coiffed up do worthy of a princess.

Around her, excited chatter increases with each moment that the clock ticks closer to the red carpet.

Eye lashes are painted. Hair is primped. Shoes are discussed, and photos are taken. Someone flirts unabashedly with a nearby photographer.

Screams of joy erupt when another suggests they gather over the weekend to see the movie "Magic Mike."

The songs of girl power icon Taylor Swift drift in the air between giggled conversations about food, hair, boys and the night to come.

It's been two years since the pandemic shuttered Night to Shine events across the nation. The annual prom evening is sponsored by the Tim Tebow Foundation, hosted by churches across the world and is an opportunity for people with special needs to experience the glitter and glam of this uniquely American ritual.

To prepare for her night out, Mary Johnston, 32, of Robertsdale, arrived at MD Aesthetics of Mobile Bay, in Fairhope, with sparkly nails and a mission.

There was a cute guy she liked. And she hoped to see him at Night to Shine.
Oh, and dance the YMCA. Her absolute favorite.

Volunteers at the spa curled her hair. Her floor-length, sparkly purple gown was waiting at home.

But perhaps Johnson loved the evening the most because, "I look like a queen," she said.

Nearby her mother, Elizabeth Johnston, watched as the Publix bagger turned into royalty.

"It makes me feel good to see them get out and get with a group of other kids their age and be able to socialize and interact," she said.

Perhaps most importantly, she added, parents are kept outside the party.

"It makes them feel more independent and grown up," she said.


Night to Shine came to Baldwin County nearly a decade ago when Keri Harmeier, of Daphne, saw an ad on Facebook. At the time she worked for the Exceptional Foundation, in Daphne, a nonprofit that provides social and recreational opportunities for the special needs community.

She submitted a proposal to the Tim Tebow Foundation and was approved.
Each year that foundation gives the local events, held in communities across the nation, less money until they are fully supported by a community effort. In Baldwin County the help came, Harmeier said, as did the guests.

"It was a God thing. It just worked," she said.

In the event's first year, 2016, roughly 95 guests arrived, dazzling in suits, sparkles and tiaras. For many, it was their first formal event. Ever.

In 2020 as COVID-19 spread, the event went virtual with attendees logging in online to hear inspirational messages and music. This year marked the return to an in-person event. Harmeier's entire household began preparations in November, securing sponsors, giveaways and food.

Hours before the night began, her daughter, Savannah Harmeier, hosted a hair and makeup party for attendees. Every year Keri's husband, Adam Harmeier, dresses in tails to open the car doors of each attendee and help them step out onto the red carpet.

The family also organizes the Dance Without Limits program, in Fairhope, and coaches Special Olympics, both of which are on the weekly calendar of many of tonight's attendees.

"I'm very, very blessed and lucky to have found my passion," Harmeier said. "We don't have any special needs in our family, but I always say these are my peeps. I just love this whole community."


At 6 p.m. sharp, cars were lined up outside of Trojan Hall at Daphne High School to deliver the night's royalty via the red carpet. Cheering crowds lined the path and greeted each attendee with whoops of joy.

Some sauntered easily through the Hollywood-like moment. Others stopped, looked around and breathed it all in. One just couldn't stop hugging everyone. And everyone hugged her back.

A crown was carefully placed on every head. Flowers were wrapped on each girl's wrist.

Inside the party, attendees were treated to limo rides around the parking lot, tables of food, and a station where make up could be touched up or added. The carefully cured menu included items to fill special dietary needs, an extra treat for those who often find they can't indulge at other, less inclusive events.

Each guest took to the dance floor with an assigned buddy for the evening, volunteers from student organizations of nearby schools. They are charged with showing the attendees all the different events throughout the night.

Emma Parvin, a Junior at Bayside Academy said she "thought it sounded like a fun way to spend Friday night.

"They want to have a prom just like the rest of us," she beamed as the crowd screamed with another arrival.

Tamia Martin, a Daphne High School senior, cheered and clapped as each new guest arrived. She said she was excited to meet her buddy for the evening.

"I just feel like everybody needs somebody," she said. "I just hope everybody knows that you can have a lot of fun meeting new people and making new connections like this."

Soon, the dance floor is full, and the party has begun.

Michael Smith hasn't stopped dancing since the music began. He does the robot. He shuffles. By song four he is on the stage commanding the crowd's attending.

As the dance floor begins to fill, service dogs and their handlers stand nearby. The pooches seem uninterested in the spinning and shuffling in front of them. The giant, colorful, hoop skirts of members of the Dogwood Trail Court engulf several attendees as they pose for photos.

Martin's buddy, Reed Pennington, of Belforest, breaks into the moonwalk. He accents his moves with a stylish cane topped with the silver head of a snake, a replica of the wizard Malfoy's cane and magical wand.

Like magic, the dance floor is soon filled. As the crowd collectively moves to the beat, their eyes glitter, they giggle and laugh out loud with each spin. Soon, it is nearly impossible to distinguish any differences among them. There is only joy.

That may be the moment the night shined most brightly.