"We learned from parents that the younger the children are, the more activities there are for them. But after they get older and get out of the school system, the opportunities for them are limited," said Josh Reavis, associate pastor for pastoral care who headed up the prom-like event at the Florida church.
North Jacksonville's special needs class, which includes about 15 members ages 12-70, "get first dibs on the spots" for Best Night Ever, which is offered free to individuals in the church and community, Reavis said.
In its second year, Best Night Ever included a "glitz and glamour" makeover for each guest, red carpet entrance, dessert buffet with a popular chocolate fountain, a DJ and a performance by illusionist Jared Hall.
Two hundred volunteers cheered as guests were introduced as they stepped out of their valet service vehicles in early May.
All of the guests, including several from a local group home, had an assigned "buddy" for the evening based on age and need who "walked through every part of the experience with them," Reavis said.
Other volunteers prepared food and served as bathroom attendants or on a standby medical team.
Guests and hosts stepped into a photo booth and received strips of photos and videographer Will Thomas mailed each guest a DVD of the event.
Reavis said the genesis of the event came three years ago when a former church member sent him a video of a similar event at her church in North Carolina.
"I fell in love with the idea, and I showed it to everybody in the church office," he recounted. "It took a year of planning before the first Best Night Ever."
After the initial Best Night Ever in 2013, word and interest spread. The local Down Syndrome Association endorsed it and encouraged parents to register their children.
"We want to minister to the children and their families," Reavis said, noting that the church's volunteers "take literally" Luke 14:12-14 in which Jesus said, "When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind, and you will be blessed...."
"Our church people beg me to let them do something at Best Night Ever," Reavis said. "They know that we are blessed far more than our guests."
Carolyn Nichols is a news writer for the Florida Baptist Witness, newsjournal of the Florida Baptist Convention, where this story first appeared.
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