The 15th Annual AFCEA Night for the Children Gala (Photos)

The event raised more than $800,000 for the Children’s Inn.

By: Emily Thompson, Dori Zweig

Avery Ayan from Florida is an energetic, fun-loving eight-year-old girl. But as a baby, she was always getting sick. Her mother, Alyson, didn’t think too much of it at first, but it happened so frequently that she became concerned. When Avery was two, her doctors mistakenly diagnosed her with leukemia, and she received an emergency bone marrow transplant. But they soon discovered it wasn’t leukemia making Avery sick, and the doctors didn’t know what else it could be.

Last July, after six years of not getting any answers, Alyson and Avery traveled to the Children’s Inn at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland. During their very first visit, doctors at the NIH figured it out. Avery had a rare blood disease called RAS-Associated Autoimmune Leukoproliferative Disorder (RALD). Throughout Avery’s diagnosis and treatment, Avery and her mother stayed together at the Children’s Inn at NIH.

The Children’s Inn provides a place for seriously ill children and their families to stay while the children are receiving treatments at the NIH. Through various activities, such as arts and crafts and family dinners, the Children’s Inn works to keep families together “to reduce their stress and facilitate healing through mutual support.” The inn has kid-friendly features such as a treehouse, a pool table, and an air hockey table.

“When you’re at the Children’s Inn, you forget why you’re even there because you’re having so much fun,” Avery said. “I just want to stay at the Children’s Inn for 6,000 years.”

On Saturday night, Avery told her story in front of 1,200 people at the 15th annual gala benefiting the Children’s Inn. The event, held at the Marriott Wardman Park in DC, began at 6 with an intimate VIP reception in the Maryland Room of the hotel. The mingling hour included an open bar and appetizers such as mini mushroom tarts and tuna tartar, while a live classical trio played in the background. Meanwhile, the mezzanine level featured an ongoing silent auction with items such as luxurious furs and diamond jewelry, along with artwork made by children who stayed at the inn. This year’s art contest theme was “what makes me thankful.” The winning painting was featured on the cover of the evening’s program.

At 7, dinner was called, and guests poured into the large banquet room. Round tables, a main stage with three projectors, and a dance floor took up most of the space. As waiters came around offering wine options and dishing out the salad course, people slowly made their way to their assigned tables, stopping to chat and pose for photos along the way. Conversation soon died down as Daphne Zweifel, president of the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association Bethesda, took the podium to begin the evening’s speeches.

The speakers—the evening’s emcee, ABC News’s Cokie Roberts, gala chair Diane Pearson, and NIH director Dr. Francis Collins, conveyed the same overall message: The Children’s Inn at NIH is a place where people hope to find an answer. The evening was geared toward taking action to help the children and families in need. While guests indulged in the main course—filet mignon and seared halibut—Children’s Inn attendants Zach Peters and Avery told their stories, and Alyson Ayan gave an overview of Avery’s rare illness.

Travel packages to Italy, Baltimore Ravens season tickets, and spa deals sold quickly and for very high prices. For each item sold, a percentage of the proceeds goes towards sponsoring children and their families at the inn. The live auction ended with two quilts made by the children at the inn. The popular quilts are always a crowd favorite and generally go for more than $10,000 a piece.

Once dessert was served and a few more short speeches were made, people discussed their winnings and congratulated one another on a successful fundraising event. Live music soon filled the hall as people made their way to the dance floor. On the mezzanine level, casino tables were set up to continue the theme of bidding for a good cause. On Saturday alone, the Children’s Inn raised more than $800,000 dollars, and since the gala began 15 years ago, nearly $5 million has been raised.

“Hope is sometimes in the form of a prayer,” said Dr. Collins. “Tonight, at this event, it’s an action.”

Gala chair Diane Pearson, ABC News’s Cokie Roberts, and Booz Allen’s Susan Penfield spoke about the Children’s Inn during dinner.
One of the quilts sold during the live auction, made by children at the inn; it was inspired by their different backgrounds.
Avery and Alyson Ayan taking a break from dancing.