One night a year, the stars shine brighter in Bedford County than any other evening. The glow from the venue, honoring our community’s special citizens, could power the area for months. Extra sparkle bounces off sequined dresses and the smiles of every person in the building. With all eyes on the stage and a hush in the room, announcer Gary Haile spotlights each honoree with heart and humor. Their parents, too, stand in the audience and are thanked for their love and support. Time stands still. For a moment, they’re just like everyone else.
In the hours preceding the magical moment, curling irons and straighteners sizzled as makeup bags were rifled for the perfect shade to match the dress. Corsages were secured, and nerves calmed. The laughter was contagious as every heart focused on the preparation. Students from Bedford County’s high schools and middle schools became makeup artists and hairdressers. Both participants and volunteers make connections of a lifetime. Everyone is special.
Shining Stars is more than one special evening a year.
In 2015, Marissa Countess returned from a mission trip to Guatemala with a calling to help special needs children there and in Bedford County and approached her church, Fairlane Church of Christ, with her vision. Mary Leta Shavers has been part of the organizing committee from the beginning, and she and the board of directors continue to lead the program following Countess’ move to college in Arkansas.
A board of directors manages Shining Stars through Fairlane Church of Christ.
“We have a separate board that typically meets monthly from January through our program in May. We have high school and middle school students that sit on the board. Board member Hannah Peels is also a Shining Stars participant,” Shavers said.
Peels offers a unique perspective on the program and its impact.
“I’ve been in the program since the very beginning. My mom was trying to think of stuff for me to do, because there isn’t a lot of stuff for kids or young adults with disabilities, in Bedford County. So when she heard about Shining Stars, she jumped at the opportunity.”
“When I got there, they did my hair and makeup. Of course I thought I was just dandy, because I was getting my hair and makeup done by professionals. The night started, and I got to wear a fancy dress. I love wearing fancy dresses. Pretty much the attention was on me for the entire segment. I like having a moment where people can see me as not just a girl in a wheelchair. I really appreciated that.”
“Whenever Mary Alice Shavers took over, she asked me if I’d like to become a member of the board. I thought it was fascinating seeing how it all comes together, from getting the sponsorship to getting the word out. I was put in charge of social media; she thought I would be perfect for that. I have so much more respect for everything that goes into it.”
Ticket sales, sponsors, and silent auction proceeds fund the purchase of resources for various needs of Bedford County’s kids with disabilities. From the purchase of assistive technology to Christmas parties for special needs classrooms to a new sensory wall at East Side Elementary, the program’s impact has been far-reaching since its inception.
Shavers said, “A lot of times, special needs items are high-ticket items, so it’s unreasonable and unrealistic for teachers to purchase some of that equipment. We’re able to help them with that. We’ve purchased assistive technology devices for kids without the ability to speak, and things their teachers feel will enable them to thrive and help with their education.”
“Our silent auction usually brings in between $5,000-$10,000 every year, plus money from the sale of T-shirts and event tickets. We have people who help us so much, and then we give it back to the kids.”
“I think the biggest thing is letting the kids that are participants know this is their night to shine. It’s all about them. They get to get dressed up and be beautiful. The boys get all dressed up, too. They’re hanging out with their friends and buddies in the back. These are board members and volunteers working together to help these kids feel special and know they’re being honored. We have a lot of people all over the county helping, and that’s what makes it run so well. It’s a lot of work, but it’s an awesome thing. One of the biggest blessings is to see them with their smiles when they’re on stage, and everybody’s clapping, giving them a round of applause. They’re not ready for the night to be over.”
It’s not hard to see why they don’t want it to end; no one within the program wants it to end. Peels knows why and reminds us of a way to bless these stars.
“Just be yourself; it’s ok. If you see a person like you [the participants], let them know they’re not alone,” said Peels.
That goes for all of us. People are different all around us, yet the need to belong is the same. Whether the people in our paths appear to be the same or different, let’s remember to remind them they’re not alone. GN