The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Life!

April 28, 2013

United, untied

25 years of local celebs, diners and donors letting go for United Way

How appropriate the Silver Anniversary of one of this area’s longest running and most successful fundraisers would hinge on much clinking of silverware, with the 25th annual Celebrity Night to benefit United Way of Southern West Virginia, happening from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Monday, May 6. Ten area restaurants and untold numbers of regular wait staff surrender their facilities and tips for the betterment of a mission, funding 32 individual nonprofit agencies in fighting for their causes.

Women’s Resource Center, one of the 32, was where it all began. Founder Debbie Short, who started the program in 1983 with two people including her, discovered an event idea from a group in Virginia — having local celebrities in their own right to act as servers at various restaurants, act being the operative word.

They act up, erupting in laughter or song. They act out, some assuming a character polar opposite the one fitting their day job description. The more tip-soliciting antics employed, the bigger the pot for the individual restaurant to return to United Way as diners let go and let their Jacksons, Grants and Benjamins give standing ovations to those on the front line for society’s biggest issues, like hunger and poverty, domestic violence and caring for the terminally ill.

“That first year, we probably raised around $8,000,” Short recalls. As the event grew to proportions beyond that which a single agency could control, United Way stepped up to take the challenge and raise money not only for WRC — for all southern West Virginia nonprofit agencies receiving United Way support.

Susan Landis, executive director of Beckley Area Foundation, keenly remembers highlights of past events. “Remember The Brass Lantern? Dick Lewis showed up in a tux and Converse high tops. He had a towel draped across his arm…”

Pasquale Mira, founder of Pasquale’s Restaurant owned today by Brian and Donna Williams, would call Susan to come to his kitchen for a pre-Celebrity Night inspection. “The bleach was so strong you could smell it,” she recollects, wondering how the servers had any skin left on their hands. “He was obsessed about having a clean kitchen, and I appreciated that.”

The event bears an equally strong heritage — of plastic ant antics, tableside serenades and chuckles for change (up to $50 each — $75 for those requiring parental discretion).

Stakes have grown as steaks have sizzled over the last quarter century of fundraising. Crossroads Mall and Boston Beanery are partnering this year with United Bank, New River Community and Technical College, 103CIR and WOAY for a huge auction in addition to dining and donating. Lists mall General Manager Kathy Housh, Mountains Bluegrass Festival tickets, a Twin Falls Resort stay, adventure packages, mall gift cards and more are on the table for the highest bidders. “These are premium items I would have to say add up to at least $5,000 in retail value,” says Housh, adding that Boston Beanery founders Ken and Vickie Cole will be present to watch their Beckley location compete for top tips and bids. They’ll even get to witness the event’s first-ever auction of … wait for it …  a man.

Bachelor and United Bank sales associate Chaz Turner is making quite a buzz for the ultimate sacrifice, volunteering himself as bait for bucks. Bidders will vie for a limo ride, dinner for two at The Char, and a just-for-fun evening with Turner brought about courtesy of charity, not eHarmony. “I guarantee I’ll be the best date they ever had,” he jokes, saying he didn’t hesitate transforming into first-time escort when he discovered it was for United Way. Girlfriend Krista McKinney will be in the crowd cheering on the bidding and taking the whole thing with a smile. “She deserves props for being so positive. I signed on before we started dating,” he admits.

Spoils of victory for the winning restaurant are always up for grabs, although historically a strong leader has set the bar and protected it fiercely. “There used to be this competition between Pasquale’s and The Char (before they had the same owner). Pasquale would call the other restaurants to see how much money they had, then they’d call people they knew to come and donate,” recounts Landis. These days, Bunkers at The Resort at Glade Springs is the place to beat. Last year, they alone raised a total of $18,000 for United Way, with Chick-Fil-A of Crossroads Mall a distant yet formidable second place at $4,100. Although technically owner Richard Jarrell and his team weren’t in the category of sit-down dining, they stepped up to volunteer as a site to replace Garfield’s, which occupied the mall space prior to Boston Beanery.

Wherever the laurels this year fall, there is one collective winner for a well-attended event — the community of southern West Virginia, agree those involved. “We are continuing to focus on child poverty in all regions,” explains Margaret O’Neal, United Way of Southern West Virginia’s executive director. “Statistics show that 1 in 4 children in America are still going to bed hungry. The money collected from Celebrity Night will in part help fill the food pantries for five counties. Feed yourself and feed the community.”

“Celebrity Night gives such a diverse group of people an opportunity to give back,” explains Landis, who commends WOAY-TV for being the corporate sponsor for 25 years running and the regular servers at the restaurants willing to relinquish their tips for the evening and still helping out with their presence.

“I suggest people go back to the same restaurant the next week and tip exceptionally well for them,” adds O’Neal.

— E-mail: lshrewsberry@register-herald.com

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