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Performance by Disabled Students Made the St. Coletta Gala a Remarkable Evening

The students sang, and hardened Washingtonians in the audience turned to mush.

Students from St. Coletta of Greater Washington perform at the school's annual gala at the Four Seasons Hotel. Photograph by Carol Ross Joynt.

On almost any given night in the Washington area there is a fundraiser happening for one cause or another, and at many of these events the organizers try to show how the money can make a difference. Few, however, can match the exuberant display put on at the Four Seasons Hotel on Saturday night at the gala for St. Coletta of Greater Washington. A group of the school’s students brought down the house with a performance that included the dance hit “Dynamite.” What made it remarkable was that the performers, some in wheelchairs, are coping with cognitive disabilities that include Down Syndrome, autism and cerebral palsy. The audience, including some of the city’s most hardened lobbyists, was turned to mush.

The evening raised more than $200,000 for the school, which has campuses in DC near RFK Stadium and in Rockville, Maryland. It serves children and adults, many of whom otherwise might not have a place to go to on a daily basis to learn functional academics and skills of daily living, such as computer and vocational training. There are 275 students in the school program. Ten percent of them live in foster care or group homes. Overall St. Coletta serves more than 400 individuals in the metro area. There are also programs for parents. The nonprofit school relies on donations to make up the difference between tuition and operating costs.

“My son has attended St. Coletta for the past eleven years,” said David Pryor, director of government affairs of Mircosoft and the president of the board of trustees. “It gives me great pride to see how much this program has expanded over the past eleven years. We’re trying to revitalize and have a more robust adult program.” When he had the floor and the microphone, he used his time mostly to praise Sharon Raimo, the school’s chief executive officer. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to embarrass you, Sharon, but I want to thank you for all your hard work,” he said. “The school, your staff—all of you do such a great job for my son and all the kids who go there.”

The evening had all the usual staples of a high-end Washington fundraiser: good bar, good food, plentiful items at the silent auction, and insidery conversation among the guests. Much of the cocktail talk, as one might expect among lobbyists, was about the election, the debates, and most of all what would happen in the House and Senate races. The general consensus was a continuation of the status quo, with Republicans keeping the House and the Democrats the Senate. There was appealing music from the Miles Stiebel big band, and a live auction that included a trip to Las Vegas ($2,400) and lunch with Washington Post restaurant critic Tom Sietsema ($1,400).

Still, nothing compared to the performance of the students, which you can see in the video. It’s guaranteed to produce a smile. Imagine what it was like to be there.

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  • Joanna

    What a beautiful event!! Joni did an amazing job directing such enthusiastic kids! What a great lead singer!

  • Thank you for writing this article and including a video. I am a parent of one of the performers. My daughter has participated in the Gala for several years and this is the first glimpse I have had of the performance! Great job, everyone!
    I think your article is great! I would like to point out one detail that is inaccurate. Our students at St. Coletta have various developmental disabilities. These disabilities include all the ones you mentioned in your article. All the mentioned disabilities are cognitive (or intellectual) disabilities except cerebral palsy. While some people with cerebral palsy also have a cognitive disability, about half do not. We who live in the disability community do not assume a person with CP also has a cognitive disability. It's like assuming a blind person is also hearing impaired. So much for today's lesson! Thank you again for the lovely article and visuals of our children!
    `T. D. Farley
    Parent Support Worker -
    Advocates for Justice and Education
    DC Health Information Center

  • Mayraval

    Fantastic! Joni, I started singing along with ya'll; I can tell those kids love ya and were having a great time! God Bless

  • Jana Napoli

    What a terrific woman you have in Joni Thompson, your music director....who has the gift of life for people where ever she goes. We do miss her here in New Orleans.

  • Jackiekontoes

    Amazing! I have tears as I type this. what an awesome group of kids and what a great music director.

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