Back in 1987 when South Suburban Family Shelter hosted its first gala fundraiser, the night included a “virtual” experience, said SSFS events coordinator Brittany Williams.
Though SSFS had to cancel the in-person aspects of its annual Keeping Dreams Alive gala this year because of pandemic restrictions, the nonprofit agency will host the fundraising event virtually on Oct. 2. The celebration is happening during the agency’s 40th anniversary year.
So Williams had to laugh when she dug up a press release for that first event in 1987.
“This whole year has been a bummer, so when I came across this in the archives I had to laugh,” Williams said. “We told people, ‘If you can’t be there, host an at-home fundraiser party for your family and close friends.’”
In the early days, SSFS’s flagship event was called Jazz First Festival, a live concert and dinner party that raised money for its mission of helping families experiencing domestic violence.
Supporters who couldn’t attend the fundraiser could listen to its jazz performance broadcast live from Olympia Fields Country Club on WBEE (1570 AM) radio.
This year’s gala also includes a live broadcast of sorts, with SSFS staff and others appearing virtually to attendees from the nonprofit’s Homewood office.
The half-hour program will include a recognition of the local National Council of Jewish Women as this year’s winner of the newly renamed Diane Kessler Community Champion Award.
Kessler, who died in August, was a co-founder of SSFS. The agency renamed its annual award to honor her legacy, Williams said.
To replicate the gala experience as closely as possible, Williams said SSFS asked a local chef to compile recipes for gala-worthy dishes that participants can make at home.
“We have a wonderful local chef who is giving us a whole menu that will be sent out to all our constituents and shared to our pages,” she said. “We can make our own meals at home, that we wish we were eating together.”
Due to its altered format, the Keeping Dreams Alive Gala is free, allowing anyone to participate in watching the program, making the chef-created dishes and bidding on auction items.
SSFS staff put together a collection of more than 50 silent auction items, including artwork, fashions, gift cards to local businesses, passes to Brookfield Zoo, and experiences such as a private Zoom party with a professional standup comedian.
The winner of the gala’s grand raffle will get two airline tickets for any Southwest Airlines destination. Tickets cost $20 each, and a limited number will be sold.
The gala usually happens in May, but SSFS postponed it to October while everyone remained uncertain about the future of pandemic restrictions. However, because staff planned for a spring gala, most of the auction items were already committed months ago.
“We were thankful that a lot of our legwork asking for donations was done pre-pandemic,” Williams said. “We had to follow up with some donors to see if they could extend their expiration dates, and in some cases make sure they’re still open, because of the safety guidelines. We wanted people to be safe with their winnings and still experience the awesome things we have around here.”
Among the auction items are 21 painted pieces of functional art, the Benches for Change that have been placed around downtown Homewood for several weeks. Purchased by local businesses, groups and individuals, the benches were hand-painted in a chosen theme and professionally sealed by Homewood Auto Body for durability.
Anyone can bid on a bench, and winners can choose to leave their bench its place or transport to be enjoyed at home. All proceeds benefit SSFS.
The Benches for Change collection originally included 22 of the two-seaters placed around town, until one was damaged beyond repair in what Homewood Police said was an accidental incident. It’s unknown who broke the bench, and the police have not released information on exactly what happened.
“When I saw the Chronicle article about the broken bench, my heart sank,” Williams said. “I know it was an accident, but it’s just sad because Howard Intervention Center put time, money and effort into having that bench completed.”
Keeping Dreams Alive is SSFS’s most significant fundraiser, with the agency relying on it for raising substantial funds in one night. Williams said the agency has high hopes for the gala’s success, despite the altered approach.
She said SSFS donors continue to be generous, even during the pandemic. The agency actually experienced a measurable spike in donations in the last few months.
“Even with the unemployment rate what it is, people are still finding a way to give,” Williams said. “They knew there were people out there who didn’t have it as ‘good’ as they have it.”
The Keeping Dreams Alive Gala silent auction items are available for view at the Bidding for Good website. The auction goes live on Sept. 26 and closes on Oct. 2. You can scan the QR code attached to any bench to find out more about how to bid.