Somewhere in the crowd that night stood homeless people, wounded service members, flood survivors. If you looked into the ballroom, it would have been hard to distinguish the millionaires from the people who had only pennies in their pockets. They would dine on lobster and steak, nibble on white chocolate. They would shake hands with celebrities and dance until night moved into day. No one would know that a ripple of change was making its way through the crowd that night, and that the People’s Inaugural Ball, celebrating the first African American president in U.S. history, would transform lives one by one.
As they walked down 14th Street, Emily Miller and Elaine Webber might as well have been floating. Emily Miller carried an elegant hot-pink satin gown. Elaine Webber held a chocolate-and-cream designer dress with delicate hand-sewn crystals.
Nobody watching the women as they made their way toward the JW Marriott Hotel that January night in 2009 would have known that, not long ago, they had been living on the streets, addicted and homeless.
“I preferred to eat food out of trash cans and save my money for drugs,” Elaine said. She had spent 10 years sitting at a bus stop, passing out and coming to — no clean clothes, no bath for days, sometimes months.
Emily would say she felt so down, she couldn’t see up. She didn’t realize that deep inside her a light was still on, and that someday, someone would see it.
Yet here they were, heading to the ball with their hair done and nails painted, about to step into history, sensing but not completely knowing that the ball this night would change their lives forever.
This was one party they did not want to be late for.
“Hurry,” Emily said to Elaine. “I feel like Cinderella.”
At the Marriott on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, the host of the ball, Fairfax County philanthropist Earl W. Stafford, waited in a black tuxedo. About two weeks before, the millionaire had sold Unitech, a simulation technology company he had founded in 1988, to Lockheed Martin for an undisclosed amount.
The deal had been stressful, but now he could turn his attention to what he believed he was meant to do in life: help the disadvantaged, the homeless, the dying, the wounded, the disabled. People overlooked by society. The son of a part-time Baptist minister and a man of deep faith himself, he had set up the Stafford Foundation, a Christian nonprofit group, in 2002 and now could focus on it.
The inspiration to throw the ball had come during the 2008 primaries before he knew Obama would be president.
“I ... bought the presidential suite at the Hay-Adams six months ahead of time because I thought I would have some underserved homeless there to watch the parade, have some food and go home,” he said. But something told him that would be too little.
So, he paid $2 million for hotel rooms, transportation, food, gowns and tuxes, and invited 450 for a night beyond their most outlandish dreams.
In 1972, MIT scientist Edward Lorenz presented a paper titled “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?” in which he asked whether a small catalyst could lead to a bigger change.