If you go
› What: Fifth annual Shine prom for anyone with special needs and their caregivers.
› When: 7-10 p.m. Friday, May 5.
› Where: Ballroom of The Chattanoogan, 1201 S. Broad St.
› Admission: Free.
› Phone: 423-463-0202.
› Website: www.shinechattanooga.org.
› Note: Limited availability; registration recommended.
Mandi Killingsworth has been talking with girlfriends for months about what she will wear to prom in a couple of weeks. In fact, she started making plans pretty much the day after last year's event. What she didn't know for sure was that she'd have a new boyfriend and therefore a date this year.
The idea of it makes her giggle and squirm on the couch in her cousin's living room in Flintstone, Ga.
"He's very nice," she says. "And he's trying to get his driver's license."
When her cousin, Melissa Kendrick, points out that the suitor is a younger man, Killingsworth squeals with laughter.
"He IS," she says with delight.
A prom is a place where young people get to shine. It's all limos and fancy dresses and tuxedos. It's about dressing up, feeling special and dancing the night, and the outside world, away. The event Killingsworth will attend on May 5 at The Chattanoogan hotel is no different, but the people attending are not the traditional high school group that most proms are designed for.
Shine, the prom-like event that Bridge Christian Church has sponsored the last four years, has what other proms have, but much more. It is a place where anyone with special needs, of any age, can come and enjoy everything that a prom involves — the dinner, the dancing and the fellowship.
But Shine is also a place where the caregivers, the people who often silently and without much help or acknowledgment, can get a little pampering themselves. There is a special room where things like massages and facials are offered, or they can use the time as a chance to do something on their own, like go on a date.
Shine is produced by Bridge as an outreach that fills a need in the community, according to Jessica Parker, a church member and physical therapist who organizes the event. Bridge is a nondenominational, independent Christian church that meets every Sunday morning at Westview Elementary School in East Brainerd. It is pastored by David Sternberg. He is the one who suggested the congregation of about 150 people look at hosting such an event. He'd witnessed a similar, 20-year-program at his previous church in Kentucky, Parker says.
In addition to the dinner and dancing, the evening features entertainment including carnival-type games and artists such as jugglers, stilt walkers or magicians.
"We choose things that can be enjoyed by people with varying degrees of disabilities," Parker says. "Some people are in wheelchairs, for example. We also try to mix it up."
About 100 Bridge members volunteer, and the church works with the city of Chattanooga's Youth and Family Development Department on the event.
Killingsworth is 39 and met her boyfriend, Alex, 22, at Orange Grove Center, where she has been a client for the last year or so.
Killingsworth joined Kendrick's family, which includes husband Ed and sons Landon, 5, and Brian, 13, nine years ago, after the unexpected death of Killingsworth's mother, Kendrick's aunt. Except for the time Killingsworth now spends at Orange Grove, she and Kendrick, 36, are together 24/7.
"We've always been close," Kendrick says of her cousin. "When I got my [driver's] license, I would pick her up and we would ride around."
For caregivers like Kendrick, Shine is a place to connect and share information and support. They swap stories of how tough it can be caring for another around the clock, and they learn ways to navigate the sometimes overwhelming paperwork, and bureaucracy, involved.
Killingsworth, whose condition is related to trauma suffered at birth, went to prom while she was a student at Sequoyah High School. She also attended Soddy-Daisy High. Both have classes for special-needs students that focus on day-to-day living skills like doing laundry. Kendrick took her to that first prom, too. But spending some time with someone is not the same as spending all of your time with someone, and Kendrick says it can be tough.
"I would do this all over again but I had no idea what all is involved," she says. "And she is high-functioning and can do a lot for herself. That's not so for some others. It can be overwhelming."
For Killingsworth, who has eyes that twinkle and a smile that doesn't seem to leave her face, Shine has opened up a world of dancing, new friends and lots of girl talk. She squeals with delight talking about the event and how she spends a good deal of her free time during the year planning and plotting with friends about what they will wear to the next one "and what boy we might go with."
"I love it. I really do," Killingsworth giggles.
Kendrick laughs with her and delights in the joy it brings her cousin. Killingsworth hasn't decided on a dress yet, but she knows where she'll get her hair done before prom.
Kendrick says she was hooked on the event the moment she walked in and saw the love being shown to the attendees by the many volunteers there to help.
"It's real love. You can feel it," she says. "You know when someone is just being nice, but there is so much love at Shine."
It opened her eyes, and her heart, to a great many things, she says. Shortly after the second Shine two years ago, she found herself alone in her backyard questioning if she had done the right thing, taking on full-time responsibility for her cousin.
"I opened my heart to God and started going to church," she says. "It changed everything for me. For us."
Shine introduced her to fellow caregivers who have become a network of information and support. It also helped her better understand just how important she is to Killingsworth and how much joy her cousin finds in simple everyday things.
"She reminds me of what is important," Kendrick says.
Contact Barry Courter at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6354.