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

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

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.