Shining with the Schmitts

The Herald | Shining with the Schmitts

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Story by Allen Laman

Photos by Marlena Sloss

She was raised to be strong. To never allow someone to tell her she couldn’t do something and to fight for what she believes in.

He is gentle. He listens to others, he works hard and he cares for his family.

One day, many years ago, on a crowded bus, a soft-spoken man and an outgoing woman found each other. And through the bond that would grow from that first encounter, Shannon (Sickbert) and Scott Schmitt found a new, fuller life.

Shannon, 56, lives with developmental disabilities that affect her brain functioning and cognitive skills. Scott, 57, has a mental handicap caused by phenylketonuria, which is a rare, inherited disorder that causes an amino acid to build up in his body.

The married Jasper couple play the lead roles in this love story.

On Friday night, alongside smiling faces, crowns and hugs, they were also the stars of another show. At the fifth annual Night to Shine at Redemption Christian Church in Jasper, the Schmitts dressed beautifully and contributed to an electric environment of pure happiness and acceptance.

And they glowed.

After dinner, Scott and Shannon slow dance. Shannon said she prefers slow dancing. "That's my way of doing it," she said.

“It gives us the opportunity to maybe shine just a little bit,” Shannon said. “And to clean up pretty good.”

The event is billed as “an unforgettable prom night experience, centered on God’s love for people with special needs.” It is sponsored by the Tim Tebow Foundation, and more than 721 churches across the world hosted Night to Shine festivities Friday.

Guests come to Redemption from across the region. Like many of the other attendees — registered numbers pushed 200 — the Schmitts look forward to the spectacle each year. Shannon and Scott arrived early, about 2 1/2 hours before the festivities began.

A gentle snow fell outside Friday as Scott buttoned up his navy blue suit and tightened his Indiana University tie in a church bathroom. Just down a hallway filled with the intoxicating fumes of a makeshift salon, Shannon had her hair curled and sprayed. Beauticians dolled her up — applying foundation, blush and lipstick to transform her into a queen.

All participants were given the opportunity to be freshened by area experts in the pop-up boutique. Some of the event’s more than 450 volunteers worked inside. Earlier in the day, attendees could stop in La Frontera Haircuts for a free trip to the local barber shop.

Sitting in the styling chair in her dark blue dress and white shawl, Shannon realized she’d forgotten medicine she needed at home. So, Scott headed there to retrieve it.

She relies on him. Born in Huntingburg, her late parents always took care of her before her husband came into her life. Without him, she’d need to live with her family, or possibly in a group home.

Shannon recalled how she was “sweet on some guys” while attending Southridge High School, but they would lose interest when they learned of her special needs. Another suitor ended up being a bad match and she dumped him.

Scott dated once before Shannon. It was a short relationship that fizzled out. Without his wife, the Jasper native could probably live on his own. But he is happy he has Shannon. He loves her company.

The Schmitts live fulfilling lives. They work, drive, watch movies, go bowling and love taking trips. Their relationship is functional in that the two support each other. But it is also fun, rewarding and has enabled them to grow.

After the two moseyed to the sign-in station Friday, they were assigned a buddy without special needs to guide them through the night. The liaison was Rita Schroeder, a Huntingburg woman the two quickly became friends with over the course of the evening.

Scott gets a boutonniere pinned on his jacket before the event.

Along with other guests, they pinned on a corsage and boutonniere and piled in a limousine. Though the ride is short — just a couple moments to get around the building — it’s one of Scott’s favorite parts of the night. Upon exiting the slick ride, they walked back into the church along a red carpet, which was lined with hundreds of attendees who clapped and cheered for them.

“It’s a group of people that aren’t really ministered to,” Redemption Campus Minister Ryan Stiles said of those who attend Night to Shine. “And through the Tim Tebow Foundation drawing attention to it, it allows us the opportunity to show God’s love to them in a way that they’ve never seen. And show them that God loves them no different than you or I. They just happen to have a special need or a disability.”

Scott and Shannon met in their 20s on a Southern Indiana Resource Solutions bus that transported them to work, where they would take pictures of files and process microfilm for Memorial Hospital and Health Care Center.

Shannon liked that she could talk to him. Scott liked being with her. Their conversations led to seven years of dates, which eventually gave way to marriage. They moved into their first home in the easily-flooded Frogtown neighborhood in Jasper after saying their vows, and later hopped to their current place on West Wagner Street.

At first, family members wondered if the union could last. But years later, they see the good that it has brought to both of their lives. At least one believes it has allowed them to live and think for themselves.

“I know on the front end, there were questions of, will it work,” said Nancy Gerber, Scott’s aunt. “Can it work? But I think it has worked well for them.”

Gerber, who lives in Jasper and sewed the snow white shawl Shannon wore on Friday, believes “that it is really wonderful to see that they can have such a good bond, and thrive in life, even though they [have] special needs.”

The Schmitts have been wed for 26 years, and have been there for each other through the good and the bad.

“Oh, we’ve changed a whole heck of a lot,” Shannon reflected. “We’ve grown old together."

Scott says hello to Marge Kreilein of Celestine while passing through the hallway of "friendly paparazzi" upon entering the venue. Scott knows Kreilein from his Tuesday morning bowling league.

The red carpet walk ended Friday with a dinner: a spread including chicken breast, mashed potatoes, green beans and chocolate pudding. The guests mingled after eating. Scott and Shannon played cornhole, danced the Cupid Shuffle and wandered into the karaoke room before stopping by a photo booth to have their pictures taken with silly props.

Cassie Gaylord, 26, was one of the many in attendance on Friday. She lives in a Jasper group home, and she explained that the gathering is “a place where we can come and not be judged by others.”

“It’s OK to have a problem,” Gaylord said. “Because you’re not here to focus on your problems and struggles and your weaknesses. You’re here to have fun. And to have once a year, a place where you can be yourself and not have others look at you differently.”

Scott currently works at the Goodwill store in Jasper. Shannon works in the cafeteria at Southridge Middle School. They’ve both held many jobs in the past: Shannon has specialized in fast food, and Scott has been employed at a variety of establishments, including a 22-year stint at Stens Corporation.

The Schmitts moved from the photoshoot to a special crowning ceremony Friday, where one by one, attendees walked out onto the sanctuary stage with their buddies, donned a colorful plastic crown, and posed for another picture.

Shannon and Scott enter the spotlight on stage with their assigned buddy for the evening, Rita Schroeder of Huntingburg, before getting crowned.

The night ended as it always does: with a dynamic party featuring hundreds of dancers letting loose and embracing the atmosphere. A pre-recorded message from superstar athlete Tim Tebow flashed on screens mid-shindig to a roaring round of applause. In Tebow’s speech, he crowned every attendee as a king or queen of the prom event.

Even if he was just a generated image beamed through a projector, attendees love the man that has helped make their dreams come true.

“But even more important than being crowned as the king or the queen of the prom tonight, we believe that’s how the God of this universe looks at you every single day of your life,” Tebow said. “That’s how important you are. That is how special you are. That is how loved you are.”

Shannon and Scott watched together. Their connection shows that those with special needs can still find companionship in life. What they share is special, explained Stephani Lane, county coordinator with the Dubois County Special Olympics.

“They are the only married couple that we have in our Special Olympics program,” she said. “So, it’s cool to see that they can have the same things that everybody else does. They need a little guidance, but they do well.”