Behind the scenes: Mercy gears up for White Christmas Charity Ball

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 232 views 

Planning an event for 700+ people is not for the faint of heart.

Organizers in Fort Smith are gearing up for the Mercy Foundation's annual White Christmas Charity Ball set for Friday (Dec. 12) evening. Held at the Fort Smith Convention Center, the sold-out event is drawing its largest crowd to date, which requires a great deal of coordinating and set-up among the numerous parties involved.

Hollye Dickinson, Annual Giving Manager for the Mercy Foundation Fort Smith, was hard at work on Thursday (Dec. 11) afternoon, along with dozens of volunteers, staff, and representatives from the various providers getting everything in order.

"We are really excited about this year's ball and believe the community is going to be pleased," said Dickinson. "We wanted to do a few things differently … change it up a bit. This event has really evolved, starting out as an Auxiliary Dinner Dance 47 years ago, to a true production complete with dinner, great entertainment, and more."

Mercy upped the ante this year, with the addition of a nationally recognized performer, American Idol alum and BMG recording artist Danny Gokey.

"It is the first time we have brought in entertainment on this level," said Dickinson. "It is going to be a great show on top of everything else."

Before Gokey can take the stage on Friday night, there are countless boxes to unpack, lights to hang, and dozens of other tasks that must be checked off the list. The venue was a true work in progress on Thursday as supplies and workers arrived on scene. An army of volunteers and staff could be seen throughout the Convention Center hall assembling sparkly centerpiece decor, climbing  ladders to trim trees, and sorting through crates.

With more than 70 tables seated for 10 set up throughout the center, the crew had their work cut out from them. Many worked throughout the afternoon dressing tables, stringing lights, and helping Foundation staff prep for the big night. Former Auxiliary members showed up to "fluff" table toppers and sweep up rogue glitter. Ladders were also strewn across the Convention Center as workers set up the performance stage, overhead lights, and sound equipment for the concert and after party.

"These folks are working hard to make this all come together," said Dickinson. "On top of our Mercy crew, there are lots here from our vendors getting their pieces in place for tomorrow evening."

The difference is in the little details when it comes to making a black-tie event stand out to guests. From fine linens and china to sparkling serving ware, event goers want to be wowed, which is why Francisco Bautista, manager of Fort Smith-based RSVP Rentals, spent many hours prepping for the White Christmas Ball.

"We begin by coordinating with the event contact person and from there, we work with the caterer, the venue, and other parties to make sure all needs are met," he said.

The rental provider handles events of all sizes throughout the region, and is no stranger to the preparation process. Bautista's crew arrived Thursday afternoon with more than 7,000 pieces of silverware and glassware in tow. The team also hauled in crates filled with china, napkins, and catering equipment.

Despite being a one-evening event, RSVP spends several days total organizing, packing, setting-up and tearing down for large gatherings like the White Christmas Ball.

"A lot goes into all of this," said Bautista. "We treat these events as our own, making sure that everything on our end is how we would want it to be if it was something we were hosting or attending. That means washing and hand polishing every piece to make it look its best."

RSVP spent the rest of the evening setting places for the 720 anticipated guests.

Following the event, the crew will swoop in to gather all of their supplies and equipment and begin the process all over for their next assignment.

"It's a lot of work, but I truly enjoy it," said Bautista. "It is fun to see the finished product."

River City Deli has prepared a menu comprised of a surf and turf main course and sides. Guests also will enjoy a New York Style Cheesecake and a rich, dark chocolate mousse with their meal.

"This is the first time we have partnered with River City and we think guests are going to really love the menu," said Dickinson.

The caterer was also on-hand Thursday afternoon, organizing its prep and serving areas. Representatives worked closely with RSVP, as well as beverage providers to hammer out all of the final details.

River City Deli is also tasked with providing hors d'oeuvres for the VIP Reception, held prior to the ball in the Convention Center Rotunda, and treats for the after-party, which will feature a dancing and music by DJ Brock Short.

In addition to food and music, the Mercy Foundation has planned a full evening of entertainment and bidding, including the event's signature ornament tree.

"For $40, guests can purchase an ornament from the tree for the chance to win one of the incredible prizes wrapped underneath," said Dickinson. "We took some of our most popular silent auction items from last year and used that to determine gifts for this year."

Items included two airline tickets to any destination, an air soft rifle, and a Michael Kors purse, among other prizes.

The ball will also include a premier live auction and a direct appeal, with guests being asked to support Mercy's non-emergent transport program.

"Proceeds from the direct appeal will support this initiative which helps transport individuals to and from the hospital," said Dickinson. "Too often, patients don't receive the care they need, because they can't afford to travel back and forth to the doctor. Our goal is raise funds to purchase a van for the non-emergent transport program and to support efforts such as purchasing gas cards for these individuals."