A masquerade ball usually is not about unmasking, but that was the word repeated over and over throughout the 2018 Evening of Hope Gala benefiting AIDS Outreach Center. Unmasking hope for a cure for AIDS. Unmasking the stigma about HIV. Unmasking one's authentic self to live life without fear.
The annaul fundraiser took place the night of May 19 at the Hilton Fort Worth. VIPs gathered early for a private cocktail reception in the hotel's Kennedy suite, where President John F. Kennedy famously spent his last night before his fateful trip to Dallas.
Then attendees gathered for a larger, cash-bar reception outside the ballroom. Donning elaborate masks, guests — including Michael Pugh, Michael Matthews, Laura Blackman, Euan Blackman, Trudy Akery, Loc Spann-Ly, and Suzanna Farmer — mingled, took photos at the step-and-repeat, and perused and bid on the wall of silent auction items. Up for auction were tickets, experiences, and memorabilia such as Houston Astros World Series ring, albums autographed by Elton John and Lady Gaga, and signed Star Wars movie posters. Patrons also had the chance to shop for Fort Worth-based Mustard Seed Jewelry, whose owner, Marcie Finney Ditto, was giving a portion of the proceeds back to AIDS Outreach Center.
When the ballroom doors opened, guests sat down to a dinner of field greens salad, panko-crusted chicken breast with lemon buerre blanc and vegetables, and lemon mousse or pecan pie.
Event co-chairs Di Ann Sanchez and Scott W. Green welcomed party-goers. They and the night's emcee, Emmy-winning TV personality Barry Phillips, announced that the evening would be about "unmasking hope." Phillips reminded the audience that "hope" was an important theme for JFK.
Members of the acclaimed Dallas men's chorus Turtle Creek Chorale took the stage for the first of two performances under artistic director Sean M. Baugh. They first sang a jaunty rendition of "You Can't Stop the Beat" from Hairspray. A bit later, they got more poignant with a performance of "Sound of Silence," followed by a beautifully lyrical version of "Over the Rainbow."
AIDS Outreach Center executive director Shannon Hilgart presented the Community Award of Inspiration to Norbert White, executive director of Samaritan House. Then a film, created and produced by John Miller and Beth Pfaff, showed personal testimonies of the work the center does in Tarrant County.
But the emotional high points of the evening came from the two invited speakers.
The Rev. Carol A. West, who received the Individual Award of Inspiration, gave the keynote address. West recalled her work as the AIDS chaplain at Dallas' Cathedral of Hope when people were just starting to learn about HIV. She remembered conducting three to four funerals per weekend and, she said, hated pressing the button on her answering machine and hearing about another person who had died. AIDS patients, she said, "were treated like modern-day lepers."
In a remarkable display of courage, West admitted that she needed to unmask her true self. She removed her eyelashes and pulled off her wig to reveal that she was fighting breast cancer. She urged the audience to continue to live authentically and to double down on their efforts in battling HIV/AIDS. "If one person has AIDS, we all have AIDS," she concluded to a standing ovation.
Speaker Dawn Shepard gave an equally powerful talk with a theme of making the most of second chances. The New York native served a 10-year sentence in federal prison for distribution of crack cocaine. "Prison saved my life," she said, recalling how she was led to Christian faith during incarceration. In 1990, she received an AIDS diagnosis but believed, "I'm too cute for AIDS," she said. After being transferred to a Fort Worth prison and released, she continued in her faith journey and currently serves as director of the Baptist Center at Fort Worth's Broadway Baptist Church.
No doubt the two emotional talks prompted patrons to give generously in a "Circle of Hope Ask" by Tyler Maryak, the organization's development director, and to bid fiercely in a live auction conducted by Chuck Darling. Winning auction items included a trip to New York City ($5,000, awarded twice), a trip to Napa Valley ($3,750) and a VIP experience at an Elton John concert in Dallas ($3,000).
The gala dismissed on a hopeful note, and those who wished to make a late night of it stayed for an after-party with the band Trey and the Tri-Tones.