Western Illinois Athletes Make it "A Night to Shine" for Area Special Needs Individuals


Trading in their purple and gold uniforms for suits and evening gowns, Western Illinois’ student-athletes have never looked better than they did this past Friday.

It was an evening of fun, or a “Night to Shine,” where yesterday’s practice and tomorrow’s exam didn’t matter. For four hours, student-athletes and coaches from the Leathernecks’ football, baseball, softball, volleyball, tennis, swimming and diving and women’s basketball teams volunteered their time to provide an unforgettable prom experience for individuals with special needs.

Sponsored by the Tim Tebow Foundation, Night to Shine was held at more than 500 churches around the nation. Guests were treated to a red carpet entrance and VIP treatments like a nail and makeup bar, before eating, singing and dancing the night away.

For the third straight year, the Leathernecks served at The Crossing in Macomb. Student-athlete participation swelled from nearly 10 in 2016 to 80-plus this past weekend.

“The athletes who volunteered at Night to Shine represented themselves, their sport and the University so well at the event,” said Ben Ellefritz, a campus pastor at The Crossing.  “It was so great to see coaches and players dancing with guests, singing karaoke and treating them like kings and queens for the night.  Every coach, administrator and staff member in the athletic department should be proud of not only the athletes that they have on their teams, but also in the high-quality people they are raising up.”

Casey Roberts, a sophomore on the swimming and diving team, volunteered as a dinner server at last year’s event but ventured to be more involved this year. She was paired with Michael as her buddy for the evening.

“Last year it was so much fun to watch everyone interact but this year I wanted to have a special night of making my buddy feel like a king or queen,” said Roberts. “My night got started by being paired with Michael. It was his first time and he was very excited to get dressed up.

“My favorite memory was seeing how happy he was in the karaoke room. We spent the whole night clapping and singing along with everyone else. Michael even found a song that he liked and got up on stage! Night to Shine is such a special event every year to take time out of your routine to give someone else the spotlight. It’s a time to come together as a community and celebrate everyone in it.”

Rachel Beatty is pursuing a degree in special education and is a member of Western’s softball team. In the past, competition conflicts didn’t allow the team to participate, but this year, the entire roster was available to volunteer.

“Night to Shine has a special meaning to me because my cousin has special needs so I’ve always been involved with the special needs community,” said Beatty. “This night is definitely something that is revolved around them and makes them feel special and unique. In today’s society that’s not always the case, so this night centers everything around them and makes them feel special and involved with everyone else around them.

“I would challenge any and every one to get involved with Night to Shine to truly see the amount of joy and happiness in this community.”

Quotes from the Night 

“I’m very thankful that our coaches signed us up for the event. I think it says a lot about our program and the collective values we have as a team. I had read about it before, but the articles do not do the experience justice. It was such a memorable night interacting with so many awesome people. As a buddy, I was paired with Adrian Thorpe. I have kept in contact with him since the event, and he even attended our game Monday night. It was such a special night, and I hope all of the guests enjoyed their night as much as our team did.” – Emily Clemens, Women’s Basketball

“Night to Shine was a beautiful experience that truly made me open up my eyes and realize what is important in life. Often enough, I find myself worrying about little things, but events like this help me come down to reality. Night to Shine is centered on God’s love and I felt blessed to be a part of a night where I helped make a memorable difference in someone’s life. I was excited to come together with many fellow student-athletes at WIU to make this event an unforgettable one.” – Cary Milanes, Tennis

“Night to Shine was a beautiful and eye-opening experience. I’m so thankful our team took part in meeting some wonderful people and having a great time. I hope our schedule allows us to be back next year!” – Sam Pryor, Women’s Basketball

“I was pretty stoked when we found out we could [participate] and immediately volunteered to be a buddy for the night. The athletic programs here at Western have always been eager to help out with our local communities. My favorite part was seeing the smile on my buddy the entire night. She truly had the time of her life and I felt pride in helping her feel that way. After all, the night was all about her and nothing else.” – Sam Ralphs, Softball

“I got involved with Night to Shine because Casey and I volunteer at The Crossing every Sunday morning with the elementary kids and found out about this opportunity last year. We loved it so much last year we decided to do it again. My favorite memories from Night to Shine was seeing the participant’s smiles on their faces when they got paired up with their buddy. Being able to spend time with my buddy Tim and just spending the whole night playing Xbox and hanging out with him was awesome. Seeing everyone smiling and dancing and just having a good time is the best memory I could ever ask for!” – Amanda Schaefer,Swimming & Diving

“I wanted to get involved with a Night to Shine because I knew how great of an opportunity it was to be able to participate, and I did not want to miss out. My favorite part about the evening was watching how happy it made my date to get her nails, makeup, and hair done. Being involved in community service is important because it forces you to step out of your comfort zone and allows you the rare opportunity to gain a new perspective on what really matters.” – Kyle Williams, Football

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