Our 10th Anniversary Gala Champions Gala, found us in Charlotte, North Carolina, bringing us back to where our co-founders Clay Aiken and Diane Bubel started the organization. Charlotte is North Carolina’s largest city and offered attendees to the Gala a number of wonderful sites to see and places to go.
Many attendees arrived on Thursday night before the Gala and had fun sitting in the lobby watching friends and acquaintances arrive. People fly from all over the United States and Canada to attend this event each year. One person even flew in from Japan and another from New Zealand! Each person who arrived was greeted with hugs and cheers.
Friday night the Project hosted the VIP reception for Gold and Platinum ticket holders. The event started at 7:00pm, but people filled the hall early in hopes of finding a seat close to the stage. Diane Bubel along with the staff came out to the hall and approached each group of attendees to chat and thank them for their support. Held in one of the Marriott’s Ballrooms, the event featured drinks and lovely desserts – including a birthday cake for the Project!
Executive Director Jerry Aiken opened the evening by welcoming all in attendance, updating everyone on the Project and letting them know what was ahead for the evening. At each person’s place at their table were a couple of wonderful items – a 10th Anniversary lapel pin, post cards featuring some of the art drawn by campers over the summer and a scroll. Each scroll was a copy of a letter from a camper writing about their great summer camp experiences. While people got their bid numbers and enjoyed the desserts, individual pictures of all in attendance were taken with Clay and Diane.
Pictures were followed by a question and answer session with the co-founders. Comments about Project programs such as Wrapping for Inclusion, volunteering at Let’s All Play camps and attendees’ personal experiences with inclusion were shared. Next up was the live auction where Clay chose long-time fan and supporter Ethel to join him on stage to help with the bidding. A Balloon Ride with Clay and his mother Faye Parker for 4 went for $14,000 and a dinner for 15 with Clay went for $55,000! Thank you to everyone that participated in the auction!
The very talented pianist Ben Cohn joined Clay on stage as the entertainment portion of the evening began. Together they had decided to celebrate the 10th Anniversary of Clay’s first album Measure of a Man and performed 5 songs from the album. They concluded with a ballad version of Clay’s biggest hit “Invisible.” It was a perfect way to end the evening.
On Saturday the 12th, the Silent Auction was held in the Marriott’s ballroom. A number of wonderful items from trips to jewelry to drawings, photos and more were available to the highest bidders. In addition to the items waiting for bids, raffle tickets were available for 3 big items: a large framed and signed Celebrity Apprentice photo, a $500 Costco gift certificate and 2 VIP tickets for the 2014 Gala. Alongside the raffle were two displays from the Gala’s Memory Lane committee. One featured a display of the art from the summer camps. Sticking to the Gala theme of “The Power of Inclusion” and how “art can draw us together” the children were asked to draw what inclusion meant to them. They all did a fantastic job. The second display was the Anniversary Wishes tree. People had submitted in advance their memories of the Project along with their Happy 10th Anniversary wishes which were placed on the display as leaves. By the end it was a very full tree of well wishes and good thoughts to be shared with the staff and Board of the Project.
The actual Gala was held Saturday evening at the McGlohon Theater; a beautiful old church that had been converted to a theater. Playing for the attendees as they entered was a greetings video put together by members of the Memory Lane Committee that featured supporters, camps and kids wishing the Project a very Happy 10th Anniversary.
The program kicked off with the young people from the Foundation for Respect Ability, an organization that seeks to convert “bystanders” into “upstanders” and offers anti-bullying programs and services to the community. The children performing were an inclusive group of Upstanders from Lake Wylie Elementary School in Charlotte, NC. Each one seemed to be having a great time, each in their own way. All in attendance happily joined in their song “This Little Light of Mine.”
Next up was the evening’s host Clay Aiken. He welcomed everyone to the event and thanked everyone for their 10 years of support. He also announced that October 12, 2013 was declared by our Secretary of State, Elaine Marshall, to be National Inclusion Project Day in North Carolina. Click here to read the whole Proclamation.
Diane, Clay, and Jerry each spoke on stage with dedication to the purpose and goals of The National Inclusion Project. Each one adds so much to the organizations and their love and respect for each other shines brightly.
One of the items that Jerry spoke about was the 200 Kids Campaign held throughout the Summer. He thanked everyone for their support and asked Cookie Ousley, one of the winners of the campaign, to join him on stage to present the check to Diane and Clay for $50,368 to help send over 201 kids to camp! Thank you to everyone that donated earlier in the year to help us reach our goal!
The highlight of the evening was the honorees and Champions of Inclusion. First to be honored was Tim and Keith Harris. Tim was born with Down Syndrome and has always exceeded expectations. His father Keith’s vision has always been to be successful and to make a difference in society by helping persons with career barriers become economically self-sufficient. When Tim began to show interest in owning his own restaurant someday, Keith knew their next steps. In October of 2010, they celebrated the grand opening of Tim’s Place – a restaurant in Albuquerque that is open for breakfast and lunch, seven days a week. Tim offers free hugs on his menu and is very excited about fulfilling his dreams to own a restaurant. Tim keeps track of all the hugs he gives and was able to add over 300 hugs while in Charlotte! He also let us know that he has a very special someone in his life and plans on asking her to marry him next Spring! He asked that we keep our fingers crossed that she says “Yes!”
The second honoree was Habitat International, Inc. Habitat is a leading supplier of artificial-grass and indoor-outdoor carpet products for The Home Depot, Lowe’s and other retailers. They are dedicated to providing jobs for hard to place workers. Founded by David Morris and his father Saul in 1981, the Chattanooga, Tennessee company has become a role model for other businesses, disability advocates and the general public. Seventy-five percent of Habitat’s workers have a physical or mental disability, or both. Habitat’s “able” workers often out-produce the competition 2-1. Habitat’s slogan, “A Company of Positive Distractions” and its philosophy of love, kindness and compassion honor the special diversity of the people who work here. At Habitat, it’s the people that matter most.
The third honoree was Team Long Brothers – two brothers who share a love for each other and for racing and showing the world a little bit about what inclusion is all about. Eight-year-old Cayden is unable to walk or talk on his own, but his ten-year-old brother Conner had an idea that would allow them to participate in sports together. A year and a half ago, they began competing in triathlons together. Conner swims while pulling Cayden in a raft, bikes with his little brother towed behind him in a trailer, and pushes that trailer when they run. Seeing the brothers working together has inspired onlookers, while bringing Conner and Cayden closer than ever. Their amazing determination and spirit is inspiring and could be felt throughout the theater.
The evening’s Keynote speaker was Dwayne Ballen – a blogger, author and father of a son with Autism. The audience was blown away by his honest portrayal of his relationship with his son Julian and the struggles Dwayne faced within himself when Julian was diagnosed with autism. His sharing of the family’s experiences during their journey with autism was both enlightening and uplifting.
Also included in the evening were some other special guests, special videos and special presentations. The Memory Lane committee put together 3 videos to share for the evening. One highlighted the history of the Project from the day Clay and Diane decided to give it a go, up to today. Another highlighted the importance of the Partners that the Project works with; the camps, Boys & Girls clubs and more. How Let’s All Play has made a difference in the life of all the children it has brought together. The final video was all about the Volunteers – why they volunteer, what have they brought to the Project and the joy that it brings them.
The Volunteer video brought us to the presentation of the 2013 Founder’s Award which each year honors a very special volunteer. This year it was given to two individuals. The first was a very deserving volunteer and supporter Cindy Skuce. Cindy has worked tiredlessly for many years to run events and promote the Project and inclusion in her home state of Rhode Island. A second Founder’s Award was given to Mona Hood – Mike Bubel’s caregiver for many years. The kind words and love in the presentations from Clay and Diane were so touching. You can tell that both winners mean so much to the Project family.
The evening’s entertainment was quite special as well. Tony nominated performer Keala Settle sang a wonderful solo number and then brought Clay on the stage for a duet of “I Want to Know What Love Is”. Another special performance of “Don’t Laugh At Me” from the kids from the Foundation for Respect Ability had everyone in the audience on their feet. Clay then brought the actual Jukebox from his 2005 Jukebox Tour on the stage to auction it off to the highest bidder. It went for an impressive $12,000. The highlight of the evening is always the Send a Kid to Camp Reverse Auction. To send a single child to camp is $250. Starting with 20 and going down to 1; those in the Theater generously raised their bidding numbers and ended up sending 240 kids to camp! Thanks again to all who bid!
The evening ended with a heartfelt thank you from Clay for all the support that he organization has received over the last 10 years. He followed it with a final song “You Are The Song”. As he sang, on the screen above him were photos of fans and volunteers from over the 10 years. It was a wonderful was to end a fantastic night and weekend.
Overall, the weekend of events raised over $400,000 for the National Inclusion Project. Thank you to all who were involved in making this Champions Gala one of the most special. (Including those that sent in recaps for to use above!)