Big show for the Carriage House

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When we found our designated table, I looked out over the crowd at downtown’s Grand Wayne Center ballroom and felt I had been plunked down for a banquet at some New York City gala honoring the mayor or governor.

Not at all. This was the 9th annual Dancing with the Fort Wayne Stars benefit for the Carriage House, a world-class rehabilitation center for persons with a mental illness. It’s modeled after NYC’s Fountain House that stretches over an entire block on West 47th Street.

Thursday evening’s event featured professional dancers who for months had coached a like number of local Fort Wayne celebrities, from business owners, an attorney or two and a personal trainer.

Over 1,000 people filled the ballroom to overflowing. Judge Dan Heath’s band entertained us with old standard tunes as we filled out plates with green beans and chicken. Desserts of cake and cheesecake were on the table.

Once the dancing starts, the M.C. in the person of Carriage House director Andy Wilson takes charge. He introduces each dancing couple and we watch a brief video of each couple before they perform live.

Ten couples, each performing a different style dance, from a waltz to a rumba to a jitterbug. Several judges, like the TV “Dancing with the Stars,” then offer their analysis. Mostly they make fun of each other, then award every couple a “10.”

Meantime, at the dinner tables, we get one ballot with the price of the dinner ticket. But many people buy ballots to award more votes. That runs up the total of money raised for the Carriage House. Yes, it makes for a long evening. I suppose that’s one reason the bars keep busy.

Businesses buy tables to support one of their employees who is one of the amateur dancers. Which means that the final tabulation likely is skewed in favor of the employee whose company has shown up in big numbers and bought extra ballots.

My wife Toni and I thought the daughter of a former neighbor was the best amateur dancer. Alas, she didn’t make it to the semi-finals. Again, talent wasn’t as important as how many of your friends and fellow employees cast ballots for you.

Our daughter Robyn and granddaughter Cynthia sat at our table, way in the back. But two large screens gave all of us a great view of the dancing. The performances are the most fun of the evening. Of course, I do enjoy seeing old friends.

We go each fall to Dancing with the Fort Wayne Stars. We know what the Carriage House means to people in our family who struggle with mental illness. Every year, a special treat comes early when a club member takes the spotlight to relate his or her story. One year, my son John and I stood at the microphone to tell what the clubhouse has meant for his recovery.

I’m considered one of the founding members of the Carriage House. Even before it opened I wrote editorials for The Journal Gazette praising this type of program. I helped get former Vice President Dan Quayle to speak at the official opening. What gives me special pride at the Dancing with the Fort Wayne Stars comes when I visit with long-time club members I’ve known. I’m reminded again how important our city’s clubhouse is to so many people.

Maybe 50 of the hundreds of members show up each weekday. You might find them fixing lunch, cleaning, cutting the grass or, in winter, shoveling snow, writing and editing a newsletter or keeping track of other members on a computer. You multiply that by the 300 or so certified clubhouses worldwide and you realize that our program is part of a big story.

Here, this gala event each year raises enough money to make a big difference in the Carriage House budget. We often clear $200,000. We did this year. That gives a real boost to our $1 million-plus a year budget. You can see how the event not only keeps the heat on in this big old white mansion on Lake Avenue. It helps pay for the trained staff and the upkeep on the property.

But to me the most important thing about this fundraiser is how it helps educate lots of people in the community about mental illness. We may not end the stigma. We may not always see that programs such as our local clubhouse are adequately funded. But each year, Dancing with the Fort Wayne Stars takes us an important step forward. The food is always pretty good, too.

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