The international Tim Tebow Foundation sponsored a dance in Calhoun for individuals with special needs on Friday night, where guests and their families found a community ready to celebrate them through the night’s festivities.

When Shawnda Martin was a student at Georgia College and State University, her professor encouraged the class to volunteer at a local Night to Shine dance where people with special needs are invited to dress up, enjoy refreshments and dance their heart out. But because she was on the softball team and had regular practices, she never got to partake in the event.

Now in her first year of teaching special education at Sonoraville High School, Martin wanted to plan a dance for the local community in order to bring Calhoun and Gordon County together.

She applied to be sponsored by the Tim Tebow Foundation in August, and after six months of planning, volunteer organizing and coordinating, the TTF-sponsored event finally came to fruition on Friday.

“It’s a dance for people with special needs, but we’ve opened it to local high schools, the chamber, the resource center,” said Martin after speaking to guests about the refreshments and activities offered at the dance. “I just posted it on social media and sent it through school emails and people just came to us to help out.”

On Friday, when guests came to First Baptist Church — where the event was being hosted — they were able to not only dance with their host and friends, but also play corn hole, get their hair and makeup done, take rides in a horse and carriage, enjoy refreshments donated by local organizations and take pictures at the photo booth.

They were greeted by applauding volunteers as they walked on the red carpet, met their host for the evening and were interviewed by Sierra Maddox, a junior at Calhoun High School who served as the event’s red carpet host.

Martin originally just wanted to do something to help bring the community together and show their support for individuals with physical or mental limitations. Yet, in addition to the TTF, Mohawk and Shaw Industries both provided donations to sponsor the event.

“Night to Shine” is a Christian-centered prom night experience specifically hosted by the TTF for people with special needs 14 and older. The event has been held at churches around the world for the past five years, and in 2018, the foundation hosted approximately 100,000 “honored guests” at their 655 worldwide events.

Hosts, or volunteers, are paired with the honored guests and escort them through the course of the evening, helping them with whatever they might need or taking them wherever they wanted to go.

The TTF hosts other projects to aid and celebrate individuals on the margins of society, including projects that focus on families wanting to adopt children with special needs, children with life-threatening illnesses and orphans in undeveloped countries.

As for how the foundation has affected the community on a local level, parents and friends of Friday’s honored guests said it was about time an event like this came to Calhoun.

“Calhoun has needed this, and what Shawnda did for these kids is amazing,” said Carrie Key as her daughter Grace danced the “Cupid Shuffle” with her friends and host. “Honestly there’s very little here and it’s very hard for someone with a disability to transition out of school and into work.”

Key said Grace, who graduated from Calhoun High School in 2017, has struggled to find the help and support she needs, but that it was encouraging to see the community rally behind individuals with special needs, and hopes to see more similar events pop up in the area.

First Baptist’s Minister of Students Steven Waters, though he was a part of the planning process, said Martin was the central point person for the event, coordinating most details.

“Shawnda came up to me one day and asked if we would consider helping host the event,” said Waters on Friday night from the parent’s break room, which was stocked with snacks and food for parents who accompanied their children to the dance.

“This is the first time Gordon County and Calhoun have hosted this event, and seeing everyone working together to have a great event for the kids and adults who are attending … it’s fantastic,” the minister said. “The kids can really shine.”

Alecia Segursky, who serves as both the special education coordinator for Gordon County Schools and the director of Gordon County Special Olympics, said she was so excited to be able to see Martin’s idea in action. When asked how she participated in the planning and coordination, Segursky pointed back to Martin, saying, “It’s all her.”

“I will say this, Shawnda is an on-fire, passionate teacher,” Segursky said. “I told (Martin’s) mom earlier today she must be so proud of her daughter.”

After taking a break from making sure the event was running smoothly, Martin finally commented on the progress of the event and said she was still nervous, but that it was exciting to see everyone having a good time.

“Words can’t explain how excited I’ve been for this,” Martin said. “After the initial shock of it being here already, I’m still nervous, but it’s been a great way to show God’s love.”