After canceling last year’s event, Literacy Achieves Executive Director Sarah Papert was determined not to settle for anything less than a real in-person gathering. Luckily, the arrival of vaccinations came just in the nick of time for people to start easing out of the total virtual world.
In the meantime Sarah knew that holding an event in an enclosed venue wasn’t going to happen, so she found the perfect outdoor spot that fit her bill. It was the Annette Strauss Square adjacent to the Winspear Opera House in Dallas’ Performing Arts District.
Starting at 6:30 p.m., guests like Marnie and Kern Wildenthal, Rust and Margot Reid, Lee Papert (aka Sarah’s husband) and sister Peggy Papert, Linda Johnson, Gwen Moore, Sarinder Chhabra, Barbara Applebaum, Len Cedars, Deborah Morgan Stokes, Sally and Bill Dix and Patricia and Claude Maples made their way through the check-in and metal detectors to be rewarded with individual boxed dinners prepared by the Wolfgang Puck Catering team and a bottle of wine for two.
Kern recalled how last year they had scheduled a trip to England just as word of a virus was hitting Europe. After repeated messages from friends abroad, “I chickened out” and canceled the flight, he said. However, another couple with similar plans continued with their trip only to return and test positive.
For those assigned to seating on the lawn, they discovered no tables. Instead, the lawn had been marked off in pods to accommodate six people each. In each of the pod’s squares was a black folding chair compete with a cup holder and a blanket to picnic on during the event — and to take home.
For others, there were setups of tables for four with green-and-blue balloon centerpieces on the Southwest Porch overlooking the grounds.
Just as the sun was setting, the lights of the surrounding buildings created a gleaming backdrop with an occasional Southwest Airlines jet coasting overhead.
Before the program got underway, the only “performance” was the sound of cars screeching on the neighboring streets. But right on cue, the burning of rubber subsided and Sarah welcomed the sold-out crowd.
It seems that the capacity of the Square was limited to 350, but the event had actually surpassed that number because some guests had opted for stay-at-home attendance.
Following Event Co-Chairs Megan and Kevin Nicholson‘s welcome to the guests, a testimonial by Literacy Achieves student Kettly Alcius, and the introduction of the Marnie Wildenthal Literacy Legacy Awardee by Marlo Melucci, Dr. Arlene Ford accepted her award, recalling how her late grandmother had been so influential in her life by instilling the importance of treating each person as if they were special. That attitude has been a key to Literary Achieves’ success in teaching English to newly arrived North Texas residents.
During the pandemic, Literacy Achieves carried on its mission via Zoom classes, despite the high-tech challenges. Since many of the student didn’t have the equipment or internet availability to attend, the Literacy Achieves crew managed to have tablets and hots spots provided. It turned out that in addition to learning English, the students were also learning the 21st century means of communication.
As shown in a video produced by Byron Harris and narrated by John McCaa, the organization adjusted once again to help its students and neighbors face the challenges of Winter Storm Uri less than six weeks before the fundraiser. When many of the Vickery Meadows residents were without water, electricity and basic needs, the Vickery Meadows campus became a distribution site for food, water and supplies for more than 1,200 people impacted by the big storm. Soon, the word spread among the North Texas community, and individuals as well as organizations arrived with more provisions to support Literacy Achieves’ pop-up giveaway.
Following the video, former Booker T. Washington student/jazz violinist Richmond Punch and former Dallas Black Dance Theater dancer Alyssa Harrington performed onstage. Nearing the end of their performance, Richmond announced that it was time for an interactive concert and encouraged the roughly 300 guests to get up and dance. Actually, no encouragement was needed. As if they’d been holding their collective breath for a year, the throngs of people turned the properly squared-off pods into the embodiment of Greek dancing muses, with Arlene and Sarah leading the action. Some danced with partners; others did solos. Pretty soon Richmond and Alyssa joined the lawn action, too.
One observer wondered aloud if perhaps the scene of dancers was a bit cavalier during the pandemic’s possible ebbing. Another responded, “No, they’re just celebrating the hope of returning to normal.”
To close the evening, Richmond returned to the stage and performed “Purple Rain” as some guests raised their cellphone flashlights and swayed to the music.