Businessman's Gift Stirs 'Platinum-Level Guests'

By Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Jasmine Howard, 19, peered at herself in the full-length mirror last night and saw a confident young woman instead of the hostile teenager she had been while growing up with a crack-addicted mother in Memphis.

In a floor-length, turquoise strapless gown, she looked more like Cinderella than a former ward of the court. She checked her makeup and hair, then headed toward the grand ballroom of the JW Marriott Hotel for the People's Inaugural Ball.

For Howard, the trip to Washington for the inauguration affirmed that people really can change, and she compared her transformation with the election of the nation's first African American president. "I can relate to Barack Obama, because he believes in change, and I changed," said Howard, a college student who is majoring in social work.

Howard was one of hundreds of disadvantaged people or volunteers who had come from across the country to the nation's capital to witness history as guests of businessman benefactor Earl W. Stafford. Some have terminal illnesses or are scarred by poverty. Others were displaced by Hurricane Katrina or disabled by wars.

As soon as Obama appeared yesterday on the large television screen, the terrace at the hotel erupted in shouts of joy. "Only in this country!" said Phyllis Coleman-Lacey of Clinton.

And perhaps only in this country would someone pay $1 million to rent a slew of hotel rooms two blocks from the White House and that much more to produce a three-day series of social events for hundreds of strangers, culminating with the People's Inaugural Ball. The 60-year-old Fairfax County businessman wanted to give the trip of a lifetime to as many people as he could whose health or economic circumstances would prohibit them from making the trip on their own.

And that he did.

They all met for the first time at a reception Monday night, where Stafford spent more than three hours hugging, kissing and being photographed with his "platinum-level guests," as he nicknamed them.

The reception came after a prayer breakfast and later a luncheon in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose son Martin Luther King III addressed them. They were entertained by the Friendship Public Charter School Color Guard, the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Washington Ensemble and Ken Ford, who drew a standing ovation with a performance on the electric violin.

"Barack Obama's election is a monumental step, but it was not the realization of the dream of Martin Luther King Jr.," the son of the civil rights martyr said, citing concerns about poverty, homelessness, public education and health care.

"America has so much promise, so much potential, so much to offer to the world," King said, later adding, "My dad said, 'We, as a people, will get to the promised land.' We haven't gotten there yet, but we should feel pride. We didn't think we'd see an African American president, and for that we should feel proud."

Luncheon participants said Stafford's generosity was one for the history books, too.

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