Sixteen-year-old Mariel Diñarta, diagnosed with Down Syndrome when she was a kid, twirled on the red carpet as she was escorted by Miss Universe 2017 Demi Leigh Tebow to the main stage, where a crowning ceremony was being held in a Bacolod hotel, Wednesday. Mariel, a resident of Talisay City, was clearly having the time of her life as she smiled and confidently posed in front of cameras. She instantly became the darling of the crowd!
Mariel was just one of the more than 70 teenagers and individuals with special needs from different parts of Bacolod and Negros Occidental, who were given the royal treatment in the very first “Night to Shine” event in the City of Smiles sponsored by the Tim Tebow Foundation.
“I am a fan of beauty pageants,” the gregarious Mariel shared to me in between giggles and a one-on-one tutorial on how to strike a pose. She’s so adorable! As of this writing, her video on Tim Tebow’s page showing her walking on the red carpet with Demi has garnered over 8 thousand reactions, over 400 comments and over 700 shares.
Her mother Ma. Nelly said her daughter is her family’s greatest blessing. “There is never a dull moment with her. She loves to socialize and she is always bubbly. She even joined a beauty pageant in Cadiz City,” shared Mariel’s mom who was teary-eyed when she saw her child so happy while partying with fellow persons with special needs.
Meanwhile, Ryan was jumping for joy on stage, while raising both arms like a champion, after Tim crowned him and shouted “Guapo!” (handsome). Ryan’s aura spoke of victory.
On the other hand, cheerers waving gold metallic pom-poms could not contain their joy upon seeing how happy Gab was while he was being wheeled into the main hall. Gab has Global Development Delay and Cerebral Palsy. He was all smiles and in high spirits while he was on his way to the stage where former NFL quarterback Tim Tebow was waiting to put a crown on his head, a symbolic way of telling and reminding him that he is special and most importantly, loved not only by the people around him but by his Heavenly Father.
Earlier, when Tim saw Gab being escorted to the venue along with other guests. The American football player immediately ran to the teenager and assisted him. Without qualms, he carried Gab in his arms and made him sit on his wheelchair. Anne Marie Makilan, could not stop herself from shedding tears. “Any mother will be in tears upon seeing such a beautiful sight! These are tears of joy. My heart is full,” Makilan said.
A shy Hazel Ann Erjas of Bago City, Negros Occidental said she has been to a few social gatherings where she had to dress up but not to a prom night like this where differently-abled individuals like her were given a makeover, provided beautiful ball gowns, and a special dinner. The royal treatment made her feel special.
Tricia Cordova, Special Education Teacher 1, said students with special needs in areas outside of Bacolod usually have limited exposure to activities that allow them to socialize, the reason why a lot of them are still withdrawn and shy.
“We are so thankful and happy that our students were able to take part in Night to Shine because our students really need to be exposed to these activities in order to develop their social skills,” said Cordova.
Tebow Foundation’s “Night to Shine” which will be brought to 46 countries this year, kicked off in the Philippines. Tim was joined by his wife, Demi Leigh and his magnificent team to Bacolod. From the airport, the team went straight to the venue and partied with the guests.
“It looked so beautiful. They were just shining and glowing and you can just see the smiles on their faces. But most importantly, they’re not just beautiful to us but they’re beautiful to God,” said Demi who went around hugging and chatting with the guests and their parents.
In one of our chats during the party, she shared that even before she met her husband, individuals with special needs were already close to her heart because her late sister was also special. “I actually grew up having a sister with special needs. Between my sister and Night to Shine, Tim and I got to meet. That actually brought us together,” added Demi.
Night to Shine which was launched in 2014, gives individuals with special needs an unforgettable prom experience that is centered on God’s love. The foundation’s vision is to work with churches around the world to make people with special needs ages 14 and older, feel valued and loved. The foundation brought NTS to Bacolod for the first time, in partnership with the Christian Foundation for Persons with Disabilities (CFPD). Volunteers who worked hard for the success of the event were from Happy Beginners School of Learning, SPED Centers in Bago, Talisay, Handumanan, and Bacolod.
In his speech, Tim said he considers himself half Filipino, having been born in the Philippines. His parents, who were both missionaries, served in the country and raised him in Palawan.
“We love being here and being able to celebrate every single one of you kings and queens! You know why we love you so much? Because every single one of you is wonderfully made. God has a purpose and a plan for your life. You have so much meaning and value. We love getting the chance to celebrate you as a king or queen tonight. But that is also because we believe that’s how the God of this universe sees you every single day of your life. That is how awesome you are because you are God’s royalty,” emphasized Tim when he spoke before the special guests Wednesday evening.
From the start of the program until the end, everyone was just having a great time, praising, singing, dancing, cheering and celebrating the lives of special people. NTS is such a touching moment. What I witnessed moved me. It just reminded everyone present to value and celebrate people and their different abilities. To see each person’s uniqueness as a gift, and every human being – a blessing, God’s royalty.
The most beautiful stars indeed shone their brightest that night!*