Quetlanetzi De La Cruz was too scared at first.
Sitting on the edge of her seat in a pink, fluffy party dress, her brown ringlets pulled into a bun, the 10-year-old looked for reassurance in her father’s eyes as other children in the hotel ballroom leaped onto the stage when actor and singer Jamie Foxx beckoned them.
“Are you coming with me?” she mouthed to her father, as the music blared and lights flashed around them. He didn’t move, and she kept bopping in her seat until she finally worked up the nerve to get up.
Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Moises De La Cruz quickly pulled out his iPhone to record the moment his little princess confidently grabbed Foxx’s hand and began to sway on stage Sunday at the National Capital Area “A Cinderella Ball” at the Willard InterContinental Hotel in downtown Washington.
The annual event celebrates military-connected children living with special needs or a life-threatening illness such as Quetlanetzi, who suffers from a rare condition that affects the blood vessels in her brain. Much of her life revolves around hospitals and doctor visits.
“It makes her feel special and unique,” said De La Cruz, who is stationed at Quantico.
The ball is organized by the House Inc. Student Leadership Center, an education nonprofit group focused on youth development. “It makes me realize moments like these are not to be taken for granted,” he said.
The Virginia-based organization founded by Helen McCormick organizes the ball as part of the House’s public service initiative. Every year, the House brings children from across the Washington region to their before- and after-school programs and summer programs to offer support and guide them from grade school through graduation.
The House Inc. students, many of whom face obstacles in graduating from high school, are expected to help plan and host the charity ball honoring children who are not often cheered on by their peers or may never have a prom of their own, said Berthina Jamison, whose 25-year-old daughter Jessica has Down syndrome.
The event is in its 13th year.
“You can just feel the love,” said Jamison, whose family has attended since 2013. “The House is teaching their students the importance of inclusion and what it is to be kind.”
At the entrance of the historic Washington hotel, ball guests were saluted by Marines in formation, with raised sabers forming an arch as guests glided underneath and into the foyer on a red carpet. Volunteers pinned pink and red roses on the impeccably clothed honorees as they took their seats inside an ornate ballroom to eat fancy food and desserts.
As they ate, performance painter David Garibaldi whipped up the crowd while rhythmically plopping paint onto a black canvas that warped into stylized portraits of Rosa Parks and the Statue of Liberty.
After a scholarship presentation for House graduates, a familiar voice rang out from the crowd.
“Keep it going!” Foxx said as the audience clapped for the scholarship winners, among whom was Dartmouth College varsity basketball player Amber Mixon — one of the thousands of students to have graduated from the program.
Foxx lit up the room, inviting guests on stage to dance and sing alongside him. Jonell Vaughn, 20, who woke up blind after falling into a coma as a child, didn’t hesitate when the Academy Award winner pointed his way and motioned for him to come on stage — which Vaughn did after his mother, who was sitting next to him, told him what Foxx had done.
When the music quieted, Vaughn seized his moment with Foxx’s microphone: “Want to hear a joke?”
“Who’s there?” the crowd responded.
Vaughn stayed silent and Foxx nearly collapsed laughing.
“If we had the spirit of Jonell, bottled it up and sold it to everyone, how much better would our world be?” said Foxx, whose sister DeOndra Dixon has Down syndrome. The actor brought his younger sibling to live with him in 2008, and their relationship inspired his advocacy within the special-needs community, he said.
Foxx led the guests in several songs, danced alongside the kids on stage and hosted a dance-off between Marines before inviting everyone onto their feet.
“I’ll come every year you want me,” he said.
Jennifer Sroka, 14, beamed in a sleeveless dress as she looked adoringly at her father, Marine Master Gunnery Sgt. Richard Sroka, who rewarded each glance with a kiss while drawing her in for a hug. They love this event, and this was their third year attending.
The teenager was diagnosed as an infant with Dravet syndrome, a severe and debilitating epileptic disease that can impair or delay intellectual development. Doctors said Jennifer would not survive more than five years.
“Jennifer loves to dress up,” Sroka said. “And we know we have to celebrate the special moments because we don’t know how long she’s going to be here.”