The guests stepped onto a red carpet lined with a cheering crowd. Cameras snapped as fans applauded their entrance.
Many arrived in evening gowns or suits. A few wore jeans and their best cowboy boots for the occasion.
The hall led to a banquet room decked in hanging lights, netting and shiny stars at the “Night to Shine” prom for people with special needs. Pop and country music pumped through the room as the dance floor filled at Highland Park Community Church.
The church was among more than 540 across the U.S. and 11 countries to host Night to Shine — organized by the Tim Tebow Foundation — on Friday night, said Barbara Flinn, Highland Park’s special needs coordinator who organized the Casper event.
The 200 attendees ranged in age from 14 to 89, joined by family members, care providers and more than 250 local volunteers, Flinn said. They’d all received the royal treatment with dinner, dancing, limo rides and other formal evening extras.
“This is a population that really doesn’t get a lot of attention, and this is their night to shine,” Flinn said. “It’s just an awesome event, that we are celebrating a group of people in our community that normally don’t get to be celebrated, and that’s the whole idea.”
Bryce Ferguson, 22, grinned and danced along the red carpet in his tuxedo, white bowtie and carnation boutonniere.
A DJ paused the music to welcome the attendees.
“This is your night to shine,” he said. “Why don’t you all give yourselves a hand?”
Shannon Pinkerton and her family had been looking forward to the event for weeks. Four of her five adopted teenage sons with special needs attended the prom. They’d asked daily if it was time for the dance, until they night they finally donned their suit jackets and dabbed on their cologne, she said.
She’d grew up with an adopted brother with Down syndrome and with family friend Mary Beth Warner, who now lives with them and joined them at prom.
“I just have really have a heart for special needs kids and adults,” Pinkerton said.
The boys started the night on the dance floor, grinning and moving with the crowd to “Y.M.C.A.” Warner, 58, took turns twirling with friends in her white skirt as the red, sequined ball of her beanie hat sparked under the flashing lights.
Joey Pinkerton was ready to eat after an hour of dancing, and made his way to the buffet.
“It’s a good time,” he said, smiling as he tucked into a taco, a chicken strip and assorted sides with his new friend Kristin Miller. Each attendee was accompanied by a “buddy” to help make sure they had a good time, while their families or caregivers enjoyed themselves as well, Miller said. She’s a special education teacher in Glenrock and signed up to volunteer when she heard about the event.
“You just kind of be their buddy for the evening,” Miller said. “I love it, I like seeing people who have special needs be able to enjoy a night just for them.”
Volunteers included the Casper Crush and Casper American Legion Baseball teams helping with parking and coat checks, University of Wyoming occupational therapy students as buddies and a “glam squad” that touched up hair and makeup and shined shoes as the guests arrived, Flinn said. Several businesses also contributed, including Eggingtons, which donated the catering, she added.
Later in the evening, helpers handed out plastic, jeweled crowns and tiaras. Cheers arose as Tim Tebow appeared on the large screen over the stage.
This was their night, Tebow told them.
“It’s because we love you,” he said. “It’s because you matter.”
Tebow officially announced everyone as the prom king and queen.
Shannon Pinkerton placed a crown on the head of her son Julian, 14. He smiled softly and posed for a photo.
“When Tim Tebow comes on and said this is just for you, that’s a big deal for these kids,” Pinkerton said later. “They just got a lot of self-confidence out of it. They don’t get a lot of experiences like that.”
But the night wasn’t over, and the music continued.
Ferguson still hadn’t stopped smiling as he clasped hands with his friend Kayla Dyer, 26, as the two swayed to slow tunes and bobbed fast ones. Later, he and another friend laughed between admiring one another’s dance skills and singing loudly to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.”
With his new crown atop his cowboy hat, Richard Curran, 47, led a small group through his own version of Texas two-step. He demonstrated his own twist on the moonwalk.
“Every dance move that I have is my own,” he explained.
“This is the one!” he called, as “Footloose,” came over the speakers. His boots kicked high in a running motion as he showed his dance to the song.
He’s been to dances before, but didn’t remember having as much fun as he did at “At Night to Shine.”
“It’s so awesome,” Curran said, between breaths after his performance. “This one outranks all the other ones I’ve been to.”
Brock Smith, 18, gave a thumbs up and a wide smile when asked what he thought of the evening.
The best part: “These people!” he said, pointing to Josh Anselmi, 15, and their buddies.
The four posed for cell phone photos together, but stayed linked as they stepped together for the end of a song.