The Greatest Camp on Earth: Aldersgate After Dark Meets the French Circus

On April 26, guests of Camp Aldersgate After Dark will step right up into the high-flying, colorful, big top world of “Le Cirque.” JoBeth McElhanon of Lilias & Olive has overseen the event design for Aldersgate After Dark since 2019 and has taken guests on creative journeys each year. This year is no different.

“I love nonprofit clients because I like to take an event that’s typically a ballroom event or a seated dinner with a video that’s been done over and over and create fresh experiences where people can come and learn about the organization in a unique way,” McElhanon says. “They can walk away and know that it was completely different from anything they’ve experienced, and they can better remember the organization that put on the event.”

McElhanon’s approach to design is a form of storytelling.

“It’s a layered approach. It’s about all the senses,” she says. “What does it look like? What does it smell like? What does it taste like? Good design is going to allow you to be transported to the destination where you want to go.”

The nonprofit brought its signature event to its own campus in 2018, and McElhanon says the location works in its favor.

“Camp Aldersgate’s mission is to bring kids to camp and give them these experiences they don’t have in the day to day,” McElhanon says. “In the same way, I want to highlight the campus in a way that would allow guests to have experiences they don’t have every day.”

And that’s what sparked the event’s annual trek around the world, traveling to a different destination each spring.

“We have been on safari with activities such as hot air balloon rides and African drumming lessons, we enjoyed Wabi Sabi with an Asian flair, celebrated our 75th anniversary with a nod to every decade and last year we visited the Amalfi Coast in Italy,” CEO Sonya Schmidt Murphy says. “We are excited to celebrate under the big top with a Parisian flair with Le Cirque After Dark this year. It will be a colorful, adventurous event full of surprises raising critical funds for our mission.”

McElhanon knows a lot of circus themes adopt dark colors like blacks and reds, but her vision of a circus is bright and happy.

After spotting an orange, pink and white color scheme in a 2011 ad campaign, her imagination began to put together visions of a vibrant French marketplace with beautiful flowers, French wines and upscale circus bites. She also dreamed up ways to decorate and highlight the camp’s iconic carousel to fit into the theme, where this year’s VIP event will be held.

The outdoor space will be dotted with bistro tables, flower baskets and mismatched antiques, while the indoor space will house a French gallery-inspired art market that will take the place of artworks in a silent auction.

McElhanon says allowing guests to purchase things on the spot allows them to enjoy the evening without having to check their phones to see where they stand during the bidding process.

The team at Heritage Catering helps McElhanon deliver on one of the most important senses: taste.

“[Heritage Catering Owner Kim Henderson] and I really try to have unique food options,” McElhanon says. “We’ll have gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches and a mixture of upscale fair food and French dishes. It’s kind of a fusion of the two.”

McElhanon credits Arkansas Circus Arts for the interactive entertainment guests have come to expect.

“Arkansas Circus has joined us from the very first event we did,” McElhanon says. “I have a great time working with their team in brainstorming ways we can do things people in central Arkansas haven’t seen before.”

Their performance details are kept a surprise for guests, but stilts, juggling, elaborate costumes and fire shows are not out of the ordinary for the troupe.

Meanwhile, with the event held on the campgrounds, the nonprofit’s mission is never out of sight.

“Camp Aldersgate plays an important role in providing opportunities for connection, independence and fun for individuals with special needs and medical conditions — something that is not very prevalent in our state,” Schmidt Murphy says. “Traditional activities such as ziplining, fishing, swimming, archery and more are all part of our curriculum, allowing campers to experience what other typical children do not have to think twice about in a safe and barrier-free environment.”

“It’s really important to me to be a part of something bigger than myself,” McElhanon says. “I’m proud to be part of an event that helps them get their message out and resonates with people so they can grow their sponsorships and donors so they can continue their good work.”

Aldersgate After Dark, just like the camp itself, will always have its own special “je ne sais quoi.”

Aldersgate After Dark: “Le Cirque”
Benefiting Camp Aldersgate
April 26, 7 p.m. |

Photography by Jason Masters
Shot on location at CAMP ALDERSGATE
Florals by TIPTON & HURST
Furniture from EVENTOLOGY

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