The 2009 People’s Inaugural Ball changed lives

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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.

Someone might say this happened in the ballroom that night.

***

Emily and Elaine slipped into a restroom off the lobby to dress. It took three women to help Elaine squeeze into her gown.

“Hold it! Hold it!” She took in a deep breath. “I hadn’t been in a gown since my prom.”

It had been a long time since she “acted like a lady.”

Less than three years earlier, Elaine had been living on the street. “I spent most of the time at the corner of 11th and M streets, sitting at a bus shelter, passing out at night and coming to in the morning,” she said. “I gave my children up for adoption, the younger ones.”

One day in 2006, Elaine looked up to see a woman she used to hang out with on the streets, but the woman looked different. The woman had on clean clothes.

“She had money, and she was going to the store,” said Elaine, now 54.

“She told me she went to N Street Village” in Northwest Washington, which calls itself a “community of empowerment and recovery for women.”

Elaine decided to go to N Street, as well. While she was living there and in treatment for her addiction, she also volunteered at the shelter, which was one of the reasons she was chosen, along with eight other women, to go to the ball.

Emily was one of those other women. She had come to N Street Village in 2006 “in a state of complete despair” after living years on the street as an addict. She had had guns held to her head. She had been assaulted. She had moved from a house, to a room, to an abandoned car that was colder than the air outside. She had stopped and started recovery programs.

“I was just tired. Plain tired,” recalled Emily, now 53. “Someone had told me about N Street years and years ago. One morning, I got up and I said, ‘I’m on my way.’ ”

At N Street, she found compassion, people who told her she was somebody.

It was the same thing Earl Stafford was telling his guests.

The minutes ticked up to the ball.

Elaine and Emily walked into the lobby. Someone snapped a photograph.

Emily would set that photo on her dressing table and look at it each morning afterward, reminding her that “miracles can happen every day.”

They stepped on the escalator and descended to the ballroom.

They gasped.

The tables were covered in fine linen. There was crystal and silver. And figurines made of white chocolate, trimmed in gold. For dinner, the women were served lobster tails and steak.

Their host moved through the room, thanking everyone for coming.

“It was just the who’s who of the everyday world,” Elaine said. “Some homeless. Some low-income. Some no-income. The inaugural ball for the people.”

***

In the midst of the crowd stood retired Capt. Alvin Shell Jr., a wounded war hero.

Alvin isn’t sure who put him on a list of wounded service members to receive an invitation to the ball. “My wife and I had never been to anything like it before.”

Alvin was injured in Iraq in 2004 after his platoon was called to provide cover for a convoy hit by a roadside bomb. Gas was pouring down the street, drenching the soldiers. That’s when Iraqis shot a rocket-propelled grenade.

Alvin was knocked out for a half-minute. When he came to, he ran to a soldier who was ablaze. He patted the soldier down and pushed him to safety. When he looked up, a wall of flames had surrounded him.

“The only way I could get out was to cover my face and run through the fire,” Alvin recalled. My clothes were soaked in gasoline. I was engulfed in flames. ... I pulled my vest off. I pulled my clothes off. But my skin was on fire. I ran over to a ditch and hurled myself in the ditch, jumping into dirty water.

“We took care of the bad guys. I told everyone let’s go back. ... I thought I was fine. But the whole time I’m smoldering.”

When the convoy finally got to safety, Alvin got out. “I felt pain like I never felt before.”

He collapsed. He was in a medically induced coma when he was transported from Baghdad to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. He would spend 2004 to 2006 recovering.

Healthy skin from his left side would be pulled off, then stapled to the right side of his body. His elbow would be broken and re-broken. He would not be able to talk because smoke inhalation had damaged his voice box. Doctors told him he might not walk again.

But Alvin’s family encouraged him. His mother, a speech pathologist, demanded that he talk instead of whisper, to exercise his vocal cords. His wife and father “literally held me up, putting their bodies under my shoulders, helping me take my first steps.”

By 2009, the night of the ball, Alvin was mostly healed. “It’s like a testimony. God can heal someone who got burned to the bone.”

In the ballroom that evening, Alvin, who was medically retired from the Army and now works as chief of the physical security division for Homeland Security, decided he wanted to be part of the change and use what God had healed to heal others.

“I think for me and my wife, we felt a change and we wanted to be part of it,” said Alvin, now 36. “At the ball, we were kind of on the outside looking in. It felt like we were playing a part.”

Alvin felt inspired to do something. “We didn’t know what it was,” he said, “but we wanted to keep that feeling going after the ball. ... I started thinking, ‘I’m better off than other individuals.’ ”

A few months later, the Army’s Wounded Warrior Program asked Alvin to talk to a crowd of federal employers and contract companies at Homeland Security. He shared the story of his recovery and the difficulties he faced finding a job. Then, someone asked him to speak at a Veterans Day event at Fort Belvoir. “It just snowballed. I never really said no. ... It’s every soldier’s story. A lot of other guys have seen a lot worse.”

He would go on to make dozens of speeches with the Wounded Warrior and Tempered Steel programs, in which wounded servicemen and servicewomen tell their stories of recovery. He would speak at schools, at hospitals and at private corporations, encouraging injured soldiers and urging companies to hire returning war veterans.

Retired Staff Sgt. Wesley Spaid, the soldier whose life Alvin saved in Iraq, has heard him speak to wounded veterans: “He shows there is a capability for someone who doesn’t think there is capability to progress in your life. It keeps their hopes alive.”

“It’s something he probably wouldn’t have done before the ball. He didn’t think he had something to contribute,” said Ayandria Barry, advocate for the Wounded Warrior Program. “After being there and people thanking him for his service, he has been on a roll.”

***

Elsewhere in the room was Janina Aubrey, who had traveled from Massachusetts with five other people from Cape Abilities, a nonprofit in Hyannis on Cape Cod that serves people with developmental and physical disabilities.

Janina wore a long black ball gown. She was excited to be in Washington “and staying at the hotel and seeing a lot of people there. And seeing Obama inside the room with his picture up there. I like his wife and his two kids.”

Janina, now 49, said she felt happy at the ball, “with all the people. We ate dinner, then snack, then salad, then drink coffee, then water.”

She took a picture with a cutout of the newly elected president. But she was no stranger to celebrities. She knows the Kennedys, through their support of Massachusetts nonprofit groups that support people with developmental disabilities. She was a star in the Special Olympics and had recently received an award from Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrickfor putting together the most informational packets during a competition sponsored by the state tourism council.

After the ball, the Stafford Foundation asked the groups represented that night what could help them. Earl Stafford traveled to Massachusetts and toured one of the Cape Abilities sites. “We showed him what we were doing with the Centerville Pie operation, which was small-scale at that point. We were peeling apples and deboning the chicken to be used in chicken pies,” said Larry Thayer, 64, president of Cape Abilities. After the tour, Cape Abilities received a grant for $20,000 from the Stafford Foundation, allowing the group to expand its kitchen.

Later, when Eunice Kennedy Shriver died in August 2009, Cape Abilities members were asked to serve as honor guards at her funeral.

Oprah Winfrey attended the funeral.

Oprah often says: “In life there are no coincidences.”

After the service that weekend, two pies from Centerville Pie Co. were delivered to Oprah and Gayle King at their hotel. Oprah asked the pie owners to appear on her show. Later, she named the pie company one of her 25 favorite things. Publicity about the pie company exploded. Requests for orders soared. The owners of the pie company asked Cape Abilities for more help to meet increased production demands. And Cape Abilities was able to hire 30 more people with disabilities to help produce more pies.

***

When the house lights came on about midnight, Elaine and Emily wondered where the time had flown. The whole night was surreal.

Emily caught a Metro bus home. “It was cold that night. It was exhilarating. People were asking me, ‘Are you just coming from the ball? How was it?’ I was being interviewed by total strangers. They wanted to know what it was like. ... I felt like I was floating, walking up the street, like anything is possible.”

She credits the ball with helping her go back to college. “That night, all the pieces of the puzzle began to click,” Emily said. “My mind-set started to change. ... What that event did for me is, it internally let me know the sky is the limit.” With the encouragement of her pastor, Bishop Neavelle Coles, and the help of a fellow shelter volunteer who had graduated from Trinity Washington University, she enrolled there in 2011.

Every day before class, she looks at the photograph of her and Elaine at the ball. Every now and again, she pulls out her magical pink dress and her silver shoes.

“These are items I will never depart from, because it is a constant reminder of where I’ve been and where I am now,” she said. “I’m in the initial stages of home ownership. I attend Trinity Washington University. I’m studying human relations. I am an employee here at N Street. My plate is full. I’m able to give back and help those in need, because I have compassion and just knowing I’ve been where you are.”

The ball was a real-life high for the women who were in recovery, said Schroeder Stribling, executive director of N Street Village. “For our women in recovery, experiences like that are peak experiences. It is a new way of knowing there is a sense of possibility for a new life. They got invited to a real ball, something they are usually excluded from, by being on the margins. It gave them hope.”

Elaine, too, says the ball was a turning point. After living almost 30 years with one selfish devotion, something within her clicked. She started volunteering in the shelter’s dental clinic. Then the shelter hired her as a program assistant, and as one of her duties, she works in the cafeteria, providing warm meals for other women living on the street. Out of each paycheck, Elaine would donate $10. “A little bit in a nonprofit goes a long way,” she said.

“What changed for me was to see how Mr. Stafford took what he had to give joy to others. He treated everyone as an equal.”

A year after the ball, Elaine was walking to work one winter morning. Across the street, she saw a woman with no coat. Elaine asked the woman if she was cold. When the woman said yes, Elaine gave her her own coat, her favorite coat.

Elaine kept walking. “I thought, ‘I’m cold, but I feel good.’ I finally did something for someone else, not expecting to get something back.”

Never in a million days before the ball, Elaine said, would she have given up her favorite coat.

***

“It was a wonderful event,” Stafford said of the ball one year later. “But once the party is over, what is important is what you do when the cameras are off and the media is no longer interested in your story.”

Prompted by ideas generated by the ball, his Stafford Foundation created the Doing Good campaign to inspire and empower people — no matter their lot in life — to give back and make a difference in the world. In December, more than 70 clients of homeless shelters and other nonprofit groups delivered 1,900 gifts to patients in local hospitals and nursing and retirement homes as part of the campaign’s newest project, called Give Before You Get.

Stafford, who also has established a new holding company to support small businesses since the inaugural ball, stood in a corridor of Howard University Hospital, snapping photos as women from Rachael’s Women’s Centerhanded out gifts and sang songs with the patients.

“You really don’t know the ramifications of giving,” Stafford said. “Sometimes, it multiplies exponentially. You never know how giving might impact a person. That person may go off and pay it forward.”

DeNeen L. Brown is a Washington Post staff writer. To comment on this story, visit washingtonpost.com/magazine or send e-mail to wpmagazine@washpost.com.

 
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