Undercover at the Black-Tie Gala

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Undercover at the Gala
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The Crystal Ball—one of our city’s top charity events for people who track such things—was hopping. Models striding down a runway, music thumping, lights swirling. I sat near the stage with my wife, surrounded by suits, evening gowns, wine bottles far down the journey to empty, and a sea of our community’s leaders and social climbers.

But with all this swirling, we looked nowhere but down, at a donation card. It listed how much you would need to give to fund various items that support kids with physical and intellectual challenges. Adaptive bicycles. Speech-assistance devices. Special summer camps. When the emcee drew attention to the card, the rest of the crowd would scan it, trying to decide whether to write the check for $100 or $500 or $1,000 this year. When my wife and I scanned the card, we saw the story of our last decade. To everyone else, we looked like another aspiring high-roller couple. But we knew that, in truth, we were a family who had used almost everything on the list.

Only recently have we started migrating from receiving charity to being asked to provide it. On several occasions, we’ve been the poster family for fundraising efforts. We appeared on live TV when a charity gave our daughter Ann an adaptive bike during a telethon. I led a cow around a showring at the state fair as the “family of the year” at a livestock auction that benefits the Ronald McDonald House. We took Ann to shoots for a therapy center’s TV commercials and tried to keep her calm enough to be photographed so she could be highlighted as one of the success stories.

In the meantime, my career carried me to a position that gets one invited to join boards and come to benefits. We’re not all that well off, but we kind of look like we could be. And I’ve expressed plenty of interest in kids’ charities for reasons most people don’t even know. Therefore, we wind up at the table, feeling each time like Leonardo DiCaprio infiltrating the Titanic’s first-class dining room on an escape from steerage.

Inevitably, each event features a tear-jerking video of the kids the charity serves. Inevitably, the video focuses on Ann’s classmates and therapists. This means that while I keep up small talk with some executive, out of the corner of my eye I’m watching video of a kid I watched learn to use a fork at age 7. In a pinch, I wonder, how many of the people around me could say which charity was benefitting from this particular cocktail party on this particular Thursday evening? Last week, homeless animals. Tonight, my kid.

The irony can pile on pretty thick in these cases. For several years, each August we’d use some of the precious respite time allowed by the insurance company to get Ann a sitter so we could ride an elevator to the top of the city’s tallest building. There, we’d hobnob with the elites who came to raise money for things like respite care. I’d walk down the long tables of cards advertising silent auctions for golf getaways, signed footballs, and “winery packages.” And I’d wonder how many hours the moneyed crowd spent calling in favors to assemble these packages. Couldn’t they cut out the middleman and spend the same amount of time actually volunteering to help a family that can’t even break free to do the laundry?

Without a doubt, these events do pay off for families like ours. One-on-one volunteering won’t buy the wheelchair lift for a car or a custom touchscreen learning device. So there are plenty of times when good intention must be translated into cash. And I’m grateful for the people who go for the drinks and the show and leave donations in their wake. But if my wife and I turn down the invitations to the galas, I hope everyone knows that dressing up and eating appetizers in the interest of charity when you are the charity sometimes proves more raw than we’re ready for.

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