The tables were set, the kitchen was buzzing with food preparation and the auction items were laid out on display.
But with the 5:30 p.m. start time fast approaching, the decision makers at Easterseals Arkansas realized they had only one choice.
It was Thursday, March 12, 2020, and with the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly encroaching across the U.S. and into Arkansas, it became clear Easterseals’ popular and important Fashion Event would have to wait.
“We met Wednesday and set up everything and then I believe it was Thursday morning we all met,” says event committee member Jessica Schueck, co-chair of this year’s event. “We had everything on the table. We were still like, ‘What do we do? What do we do?’”
It might have been possible, Easterseals Arkansas CEO Ron Ekstrand said at the time, to continue with a Facebook Live broadcast and limit in-person attendance. Other organizations, like the NCAA with its college basketball tournaments, were making such shifts.
Ultimately, it was seen as too late to maintain the integrity of the Fashion Event or accomplish any significant fundraising.
“That was really tough because everything was done,” Schueck says. “I think we were the first event that was officially canceled.”
It was later learned that a volunteer who ordinarily worked closely with the runway models, many of them Easterseals clients, had contracted the virus and tragically died just weeks later.
“We know without a doubt we made the right decision because who knows how many people would have inadvertently been infected with COVID,” says Jillian Jacuzzi, Easterseals Arkansas marketing and public relations coordinator.
Easterseals was able to rebound with its first virtual version of the Fashion Event in June, and this year, with experience under their belts, organizers are once again excited clients will be able to put their best foot forward on the runway March 18, even if attendees are watching from home.
“When the Easterseals models take the stage and you see the milestones they have achieved and the smiles on their faces, you not only mimic those smiles, but you feel the happiness that circulates throughout the room,” event co-chair Ashley Merriman says. “The joy is contagious.”
Not an Option
For 75 years, Easterseals Arkansas has helped individuals with special needs through rehabilitation centers, child development services, job training and more.
Like everyone and everything else in 2020, Easterseals had to make sacrifices and impose limits on its programs as it tried to go about its business.
“The pandemic posed challenges like we had not experienced before, and while some of our programs were closed, our services did not stop,” Jacuzzi says. “Our residential facilities, Children’s Rehabilitation Center and Butler Adult Living Center remained open and fully functional. For our day programs, we implemented distance learning practices and launched teletherapy. Quitting services altogether was not an option.”
But some programs were halted, there were staff furloughs and, of course, virtual fundraisers.
“People have responded positively,” Jacuzzi says. “We are thankful for the patience of our clients and their families.”
Despite the pandemic, people can still support Easterseals through monetary donations and off-site volunteering — carpenters, seamstresses, artists and gardeners are needed, among others — and groups are welcome to help complete outdoor projects.
Of Easterseals Arkansas’ $25 million budget, close to $1.4 million comes through fundraisers, major gifts and donors. The night's fund-a-need goal is $15,000, with additional money raised through sponsorships and auctions.
A Spring Break
Fashion Event attendees in the past have enjoyed the food, auctions and entertainment, but the highlight is watching the runway models enjoy the experience, both Easterseals clients and non-clients, showing off clothing and accessories from local participating businesses.
But with economic uncertainty because of the pandemic, challenges to the Fashion Event exist beyond the logistics of social distancing.
“Getting sponsors is a little bit tougher this year,” Schueck says. “Some of our regular store sponsors, they’re just not able to do as much as they typically do throughout the year. To even host the event — Where can we do it? How do we social distance? How do the kids still get the fun, hair and makeup and still social distance?”
Returning the event to its traditional spring date this year is more advantageous because the season is best for participating local boutiques wanting to showcase spring fashion lines.
Other things remain unchanged despite the virtual format. A dedicated committee still obtains sponsorships and items for the live and silent auctions, and local news anchors Mallory Brooks and DJ Williams will emcee, all while still highlighting featured models and telling the story of the Easterseals mission.
The production will include pre-recordings of the Easterseals models wearing selections from the stores they represent, filmed within COVID-19 health guidelines and precautions, plus live components.
Also, the virtual format offers certain advantages. Ticket sales may be a casualty of the pandemic, but the Fashion Event can now reach many more potential bidders and donors than could fit in one ballroom.
“I think the biggest plus of going virtual is that we can reach a larger audience,” Merriman says. “We're all having to become a little more tech-savvy these days. We're experimenting with TikTok and all kinds of social media platforms to make this year's event just as fun as the last.”