night to shine

Guest David Ison is dancing with Jeana Fraser, UF sophomore serving with Project Princess as Queen Elsa.

Vivian Nguyen / Alligator

Ella Zsembik smiled in a sequined dress as she took a picture Friday night with her favorite UF football player, quarterback Feleipe Franks.

She has Down syndrome, and it was her second year attending “Night to Shine,” a prom for those with special needs aged 14 and older.

That night, Zsembik felt like a queen.

“It means a lot to see my friends,” she said.

The 25-year-old Gainesville resident was one of about 180 guests at the fourth annual Night to Shine at Grace at Fort Clarke United Methodist Church, located at 9325 W. Newberry Road. Last year drew 150 guests, said Kristen Thompson, the marketing coordinator of the planning committee.

The event was started by the Tim Tebow Foundation, and it took place in more than 500 churches in all 50 American states and 13 other countries, Thompson said. The night gave attendees the opportunity to be themselves and enjoy a full prom experience.

“It’s not about whatever diagnosis they have. It’s not about what health issues or physical issues they may have,” Thompson said. “It’s just about them having fun.”

It cost about $20,000 to fund the event, Thompson said. About $11,000 is covered by cash donations from Grace United Methodist Church, the Tim Tebow Foundation and other community sponsors. About $9,000 is contributions of goods and services from sponsors.

New additions this year included actresses from Project Princess such as Moana, Snow White, Elsa, Jasmine and Aurora. They talked to the attendees and posed for pictures with them. A larger dance floor and two limos that offered rides to the prom-goers were also added.

Thompson said she is the mother of a 4-year-old daughter with trisomy, a genetic condition caused by an extra chromosome that causes significant developmental delays and health issues.

She said there are two communities: the special needs community and everyone else. But the prom offers a bridge between the two, and every year the gap between the communities becomes smaller.

“The special needs community is becoming more integrated into the actual community and not just on the side on their own,” she said.