On the weekend of December 9-11, friends of the National Inclusion Project gathered in Raleigh, N.C. for the 8th Annual Champions Gala. An air of excitement and celebration was all around as supporters gathered to share ideas, support those being recognized, and remember those who have been so passionate about this organization and its mission of inclusion.
Over 500 attendees enjoyed the many festivities planned by the staff, board, and numerous volunteers of the National Inclusion Project. From silent auctions, to a carnival, a luncheon, and a wonderful evening of recognition and entertainment, this year’s Gala event was a rousing success.
Friday evening's event was a dessert reception for Platinum, Gold, and Silver sponsors at Fletcher Auditorium and was hosted by Executive Director Jerry Aiken. As attendees got a preview of silent auction items, photos were taken with co-founders Clay Aiken and Diane Bubel. Attendees then got a chance to talk with Clay and Diane in a question and answer session about the work of the Project and the direction its programs are heading. The evening was capped off by an engaging performance by The Chris Burke Band. Chris and his friends, brothers Joe and John DeMasi, performed some favorites including the theme song from Chris’ television series, “Life Goes On." They had the whole audience upon their feet singing, signing, dancing, and clapping. The first night definitely ended on a high note. Gift bags were distributed to guests which included a touching Thank You card from a camper at one of the Project's Let’s All Play programs.
Saturday morning brought the “Through A Child’s Eyes" Carnival. Volunteers set up booths in the Marbles Children’s Museum in downto
wn Raleigh and welcomed over 50 children and their parents to join in the fun. Face painting, games, crafts, fun with music, trains and a clown university kept the kids busy. Without a doubt the volunteers had as much fun as the families in attendance.
The carnival was followed by a “Celebrating Our Supporters” luncheon at the Marriott City Center ballroom. Executive Director Jerry Aiken spoke briefly to all in attendance, thanked everyone for coming, and gave special recognition to the group of volunteers who worked so diligently on the luncheon. Gifts of a Let’s All Party book and fun flashing rings at each place setting made the gathering one of joy and fun fellowship. The centerpieces were whimsical and the gifts bags, once again assembled by devoted volunteers, held special treats like the book "Our Friend Mikayla." The day just kept getting better and better.
The Champions Awards ceremony took place Saturday night at Fletcher Auditorium. The evening was a success from beginning to end. After having a last chance to view and bid on many silent auction items and buy raffle tickets, guests were led into the auditorium venue for an evening of recognition, music, and raising some money!! Clay Aiken opened the evening with a triumphant rendition of "All Is Well."
As Clay left the stage, Lynda Loveland of WRAL-FM, the evening’s emcee, welcomed everyone to the evening’s program. Jerry Aiken recapped the accomplishments of the National Inclusion Project in 2011 including the beginning of a Capital Campaign that will raise over 3.5 million in the next 3 years.
Another performance by Clay Aiken and Quiana Parler preceded the first Champions Award to Walgreens who received the honor for their commitment to providing the opportunity for people of ALL abilities to work together, side by side. Angela Mackey accepted the award on behalf of Walgreens.
The second Champions Award and the recipient of the first Lifetime Achievement Award was Chris Burke. Chris was born with Downs Syndrome. His parents ignored the doctor’s advice to institutionalize him and instead treated him just the same as his siblings. Chris went on to star in films and television, most notably as Corky in “Life Goes On." Currently , Chris and Joe and John travel the country as the Chris Burke band with their upbeat shows and certainly prove “life goes on." Chris also now works for the National Down Syndrome Society as the Editor of their quarterly newsletter “Upbeat”. Chris reminded everyone, “We all have disabilities, it’s what we do with our abilities that counts.”
Co-founder Diane Bubel introduced the third Champions honoree of the night, Kevin Connolly. Giving his first acceptance speech, Kevin told stories about growing up in rural Montana, how his family challenged him, and his many adventures around the world. He taught the crowd a little about living life to the fullest as spoke to his audience that evening. Kevin was born without legs and his terrific humor, his outlook on life, and his adventurous spirit is something to aspire to. His recent memoir, "Double Take, A Memoir," challenges people to explore how they view themselves and what it is to truly see another person.
The Bubel/Aiken Founder’s Award for outstanding volunteer commitment was awarded to Margi Deluca. Margi left us this year, but her passion and enthusiasm for the work of the National Inclusion Project and the mission of inclusion was remembered by Clay and Diane. Her friend, Irene Williams, accepted the award on behalf of Margi’s family.
After intermission, Jonathan Bunzey, a former attendee at the AE Finley YMCA Let’s All Play camp program and 2009 Champions Honoree, took the stage not as a camper, but as a counselor at that very same camp. Along with his mother he told the audience of the impact the camp had on him and how his dream came true when he became a counselor.
The Awards and Recognition program was followed by a very lively Live Auction as competition got fierce and bids kept going up and up! Congratulations to all the winners and thank you once again for your support! The Live Auction was followed by the exciting “Send A Kid to Camp” auction which has become a favorite of the evening’s activities. Once again supporters came through and a LOT of kids will be going to camp in 2012!
Lynda again took the stage and remarked on what an inspirational and gratifying experience the entire evening was- but there was more to come. She introduced Clay Aiken to thunderous applause as he took the stage for a much anticipated concert of Christmas favorites and some of his own fan favorite songs. Thanks to Clay, Quiana Parler, Ben Cohn, Sean McDaniel, and the entire band for a wonderful night of music and fun. Thanks also to the numerous volunteers, donors, and supporters who make this year’s Gala such a success. Thanks to the Marriott Hotel and employees at Fletcher Auditorium for everything they did to make this event run so smoothly.
The weekend concluded with a Volunteer Roundtable hosted by Aron Hall Sunday morning at the Marriott. Volunteers participated in some games conducted by Aron and heard from Angela Murphy, Director of Special Events, of the Jim Catfish Hunter Chapter of ALS in Raleigh. Angela spoke to the volunteers about her experiences as a volunteer and now as an employee of the ALS organization and gave several ideas for fundraisers you can do as an individual or group.
Through the generous support of all of the attendees, the National Inclusion Project was able to raise over $500,000 to support the advancement of inclusion across the country. The 8th Champions Gala was an outstanding weekend filled with many special moments where all in attendance were reminded that Inclusion means ALL participate and ALL belong!