Real heroes wear capes — and cocktail dresses, and ballgowns, and tuxedos with pocket squares. Heroes of all stripes and sequins showed up on the red carpet at Unlikely Heroes' seventh annual Recognizing Heroes Awards Dinner & Charity Benefit on October 26 at the Ritz-Carlton, Dallas.
Unlikely Heroes is a nonprofit organization that rescues and restores child victims of slavery worldwide. Its gala has become one of the most star-studded affairs in Dallas, bringing national celebrities from TV, music, pop culture, and sports together with big-hearted Dallas philanthropists and business leaders.
More than 400 supporters gathered at the Ritz-Carlton for an evening that started with sipping cocktails and bidding on fabulous silent auction items. After some red-carpeting poses, guests filled the ballroom to enjoy a multicourse dinner, along with joyful entertainment and heartfelt speeches that brought them to their feet several times.
Notable guests in attendance included TV personality Melissa Rycroft Strickland and her husband, Tye Strickland, actress Jessica Oyelowo, singer/songwriter Shane Stevens, "Chewbacca Mom" Candace Payne, radio host Kellie Rasberry, Dallas lifestyle guru Steve Kemble, WWE’s Cathy Kelley, and NFL star Shaun Alexander and his wife, Val.
Cassadee Pope, winner of The Voice, kicked off the evening with selections from her new album. Guests were then warmly welcomed by the evening’s hosts, comedian Anjelah Johnson (sporting a silvery cape that flowed to the floor) and Real Housewives of Dallas star LeeAnne Locken. Their witty onstage banter throughout the evening kept the mood light and jovial.
Several presentations — by Unlikely Heroes CEO and founder Erica Greve; executive director Kelle Sherpy; and survivor leader and advocate Rebecca Bender — underscored Unlikely Heroes' vital work in rescuing children and restoring their lives for success ahead. Greve spoke passionately about one young woman who went on to study pre-med at Baylor University after being trafficked as a child.
Bender (herself once a victim of trafficking) emphasized the need for youngsters to know that they will not be defined by what happened to them in the past. She spoke of her personal journey to recover her life and use her experiences to develop Elevate Academy — a one-of-a-kind online program that provides students opportunities for healing, restoration, mentorship, job training, life coaching, empowerment, and leadership development.
Greve announced the integration of Elevate Academy into the daily work of Unlikely Heroes and that in addition to expanding the program across the country, local chapters of Elevate Extended will be launching in spring 2020.
Then it was time to recognize the heroes who made the organization's work possible. Hero Awards were presented to Shaun and Val Alexander, who sit on the board; Janet Jensen, Sgt. Thomas Peterson, Dr. Vanessa Bouche, Erik Gray, and Jeri Moomaw for their tireless work in advancing global human rights and efforts to stop human trafficking. Joanna Czech, Brian and Annie Zvonecek, Gary and Janet Greve, and Natalie Backman Spirova received Legacy Awards for their ongoing support of Unlikely Heroes.
Guests got a chance to help personally by raising their "paddles" at an amount that felt right to them. One generous patron pledged an astounding $100,000; another, $55,000. Those who could give at the $5,000 level got to be charter members of the newly formed Heroes Club. But even those who raised their hands for a $100 donation helped the organization raise several hundred thousand dollars in just a few minutes. The fundraising portion ended on a spirited note, with a "last man standing"-type competition for the chance to take a selfie with all the stars in attendance that night.
After a celebratory champagne toast, the crowd surrounded the stage for a highly anticipated show by the evening's featured entertainer. Grammy-nominated pop icon Taylor Dayne (who hasn't aged a minute since she topped the charts in the late '80s) performed a high-energy set of her hits, including "Love Will Lead You Back," "Prove Your Love," and "Tell It To My Heart."
Guests sang and danced along until it was time to pick up auction items, grab a fabulous swag bag, and head outside to the valet line or down to the Rattlesnake Bar to continue the celebratory night.
Since 2011, Unlikely Heroes has rescued hundreds of children, and their journey to freedom starts in one of their six restoration homes located around the world. The Unlikely Heroes teams are on the ground in the United States, Mexico, Thailand, and the Philippines, providing restorative care, safe housing, education, life skills, medical care, counseling, stability, and love to every child they care for.