Thursday, December 15, 2016

Behind the Scenes at the Salute to Service Gala

Written by: Rebecca Churchill, volunteer

When I think of the American Red Cross, I picture people responding to house fires, running blood drives, military outreach, and international relief missions. On Saturday, November 19, the American Red Cross in the National Capital Region rolled down their sleeves, pulled on black ties and formal gowns, and gathered at the Hilton McLean Tysons Corner for the 2016 Salute to Service Gala. Walking around the swanky lobby, bartenders served old-fashioned drinks and guests studied the fantastic destinations, artwork, and wines up for auction. The decor was charming and elegant at the same time, recalling the 75th anniversary of the US entry into World War II. The entrance featured a retro soda shop, vintage Red Cross posters, and a huge backdrop for photo opportunities and selfies.

Before this, I had been volunteering with the Red Cross since high school, supporting blood drives with my fantastic history teacher who was an Army veteran and EMT in the Vietnam War. His enthusiasm and passion for helping others had his whole class volunteering, and his energy was contagious. Now many years later, I’m back in Washington, DC, and I’m still finding small ways to support this remarkable organization.

As a volunteer at the Salute to Service Gala, I was set up with a radio and earpiece and joined the hard-working Communications team on their mission to make the evening flawless and celebrate the work of leaders in public service. As all of the volunteers gathered in a big room preparing to take their positions throughout the event, the Chief Executive Officer of the American Red Cross in the National Capital Region, Linda Mathes, brought a national treasure to meet us. Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who was one of the Gala’s VIP guests, appeared wearing a space T-shirt and star-spangled socks, and spoke about NASA’s plans to visit Mars and the incredible technologies being developed to make it a reality in our lifetime. The volunteers and staff were all elated to take our places as the Gala hummed to life.

My assignment was to support the film crew from Comcast who interviewed the night’s honorees. I got to observe what I consider to be truly a series of illusions as they transformed a small conference room into an interview space. Lights and cameras were set up, tape put on the floor, and microphones made ready. Doug VanDyke, Gala Committee Co-Chair, discussed his passion for the Red Cross and his mission to serve. Geoff DeLizzio, Chief Development Officer, shared an interesting story of his first Red Cross experience when he responded to a large apartment fire the day before he started working with them. Everyone who was interviewed, for all their impressive personal accomplishments, was speaking from their hearts about the Red Cross and its legacy of service and support.

For me, it was very exciting to meet Major Jaspen “Jas” Boothe, a disabled Army veteran who was honored for founding an organization that advocates for soldiers and their family members. She was so poised and elegant in her floor length white gown, and she spoke of her personal life challenges, including homelessness after Hurricane Sandy and surviving cancer. Interestingly, she told us that she attended Clara Barton Elementary School as a child, and that all these years later her award from the Red Cross was validation for the work she is doing to serve others. As she turned to leave to attend the Gala, I saw her shoes: Army boots. What a rock star!

I made my way to the ballroom as the volunteers were called to flank the room to start fundraising as Auctioneer Geoff DeLizzio began challenging the guests to make their pledges. Just like in the auctions you see on television, people with paddles in their hands raised them high. Volunteers rushed forward to take their pledges and then hurried them out to the staffers at the ready to tally the numbers. Everyone was cheerful and a friendly competitive spirit took over, raising nearly $30,000 for the Red Cross in a few minutes. The party continued to crescendo as I took in the rest of the room: a stage, an old-fashioned band like that of Benny Goodman, and elegant ladies, handsome gentlemen in suits and military dress. It was thrilling!

The night hurried on, and outside the ballroom there were grab bag gifts of wine and Red Cross emergency kits (I’ve got one in my car), and we volunteers were then tasked to help guests get their items they had won in the silent auction. It was hard to believe that suddenly it was over and all that work was done. The staff still had to usher out guests and us volunteers. What a great evening, and how exciting to be a part of it. It was a wonderful way to kick off the holiday season, recognizing the good people do. I wondered what the next task was ahead for the Red Cross staff, and how we might be helping in the future.

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