The word "rescue" doesn't get said at many glittering galas, but not every black-tie ball calls its attendees "heroes," either. Those were the two words repeated the most at the sixth annual Unlikely Heroes Recognizing Heroes Awards Dinner & Charity Benefit, which took place October 27 at the Ritz-Carlton, Dallas.
Unlikely Heroes is a nonprofit organization that rescues and restores child victims of slavery worldwide. One of its seven "restorative homes," which houses and cares for rescued children, is located in Dallas.
The sold-out fundraiser brought together 450 patrons from Dallas and beyond, including a star-studded lineup of entertainers and musicians who took the stage.
Before the dinner bell rang, VIP guests mingled and sipped in an exclusive reception hosted by TV personality Melissa Rycroft. They bid on dozens of fabulous silent auction items, including rare sports memorabilia, trips, and retail and restaurant gift certificates.
Once the ballroom doors opened, guests — including Rachel Hawkins, Alex Ashraf, Christen Lockett, Simone Collett, Tiffany Derry, William Johnson, Michelle Davis, Ryan Davis, Hamilton Sneed, and Cynthia Smoot — sat down to a delectable dinner of chicken Romesco and chocolate truffle cake for dessert.
Award-winning actor David Oyelowo (Selma, A Wrinkle in Time) and his wife, Jessica, the event chairs, set the tone for a powerful evening as they welcomed guests from the stage.
“We love that you are here to help set those trapped in slavery free,” David Oyelowo said. Jessica described meeting some of the girls whom Unlikely Heroes has rescued, adding, "[They told us] when you rescued us, you gave us a fighting chance to live and to become educated to help others in need."
Unlikely Heroes founder and CEO Erica Greve described personally meeting and rescuing children — from teenage girls held in brothels to newborns who were barely given the chance to live. She reminded guests that it's hard to imagine that people are kept against their will "when we're all dressed up, thinking of our champagne problems," but added, "Together we are going to make a declaration that slavery is not going to be part of our modern world."
In an unique twist, the gala employed a musical director, Shane Stevens, who kept singers and musicians busy throughout the night — between the many presenters and sometimes even behind them while they talked, church revival style — which kept table chit-chat to a bare minimum. Singers Pia Toscano and Emily West, both alumni of TV competition shows, both sang several songs, while actors Chike Okonkwo and Francia Raisa were among the presenters.
Dallas notables LeeAnne Locken (of Real Housewives) and Candace Payne ("Chewbacca Mom") announced winners of silent auction items and engaged in other witty banter on stage as event hostesses. And hero award honorees Cathy Delapaz of the Dallas Police Department; Carrie Wright of the Dallas County Multi-Disciplinary Team; Elle Snow, a survivor leader and advocate; and Alan Schonborn of the Texas Governor's Office Child Sex Trafficking Team got their moments to shine.
But the emotional high point of the night came courtesy of the keynote speaker, Rebecca Bender, who told her own harrowing story of being rescued from trafficking.
"Trafficking is diverse and and it's dynamic, and it's very complex," she said. "How it looks in the karaoke bars of Thailand is not how it looks with the Boko Haram of Nigeria nor how it looks in the illicit massage parlors of San Franciscon or the cantinas in Houston or the online ads in Denton."
She went on to praise Unlikely Heroes for creating strategic ways to rescue victims out of specific situations in specific communities.
Those who were moved to pledge contributions to Unlikely Heroes then got the chance to do so. They were led by the efforts of Austin Hurst of Hurst Capital, who announced to a stunned crowd that he was pledging a $1 million matching grant that would rescue 200 kids and give them full restorative care for a year.
The evening turned from heartfelt to celebratory when the featured musical entertainer, country superstar Sara Evans, took the stage. She played a short but lively set of her hits, from "Suds in the Bucket" to — appropriately — "A Little Bit Stronger."