Behind the Mask gala raises $80,000

Like the big smile on this masked participant's face, organizers of this month's Behind the Mask Gala for Special Olympics are celebrating that the event raised about $80,000 in its first year.

MURRAY — With a few loose ends still requiring tying, it appears an event geared toward raising big bucks for local Special Olympics has exceeded expectations. 

Murray auctioneer Trey Morris, who was part of the team that organized the event, said Friday that the final total for the inaugural Behind the Mask Gala is going to be somewhere in the neighborhood of $80,000. It was Morris who created the idea for an event of some kind to benefit Special Olympics after reading a Ledger & Times article in 2018 about how the program was having issues that year with financing its annual gala, which is similar to a prom. 

“We’ve got one donation that we’re looking at as kind of being after the fact, so we’re thinking we’re gong to go ahead and use that for next year,” Morris said of the event that was hosted at the Springhill Suites by Marriott hotel earlier this month. “Our committee members, they couldn’t be more proud. I had a strong feeling that if we told the correct story for these athletes, this community would get behind these guys and rally and the businesses and individuals and community as a whole rose to the challenge.”

Two of those committee members were the co-organizers, Erin Garland and Ashley Duncan, who had particularly high stakes in the event. Duncan is the mother of Murray-Calloway County Special Olympics Rocket athlete Madi Garland, whose stepmother happens to be Erin. Morris is Madi’s uncle. 

He said Friday that the Erin and Duncan are more than pleased with the results of this year’s event. 

“Ecstatic, more like it. They are extremely happy,” Morris said, turning his attention to another person who had strong interest, Rockets coordinator Laura Miller. “I mean, she can kind of relax a little bit. We’ve got some of her operating budget taken care of now, and she’s still got the (Western Kentucky) Polar Plunge (in early 2020 in Marshall County) to go for this year, but we’re not going to stop there because she’s going to be able to add additional athletes and maybe additional sports.

“We’re going to take the momentum we had from November the first and see if we can’t keep this momentum.”

Miller said before the event that a problem for the program was that, while it was having increased numbers of athletes, it did not have enough funds to handle the expenses that could come with it. This money will eventually be joined with Murray-Calloway’s half of funds raised from the Polar Plunge, which routinely raises about $90,000 and is split between the Rockets and Marshall County programs. 

“Growth is great, but we’ve grown so quickly that we can’t keep up with the funds and we want to be able to give these kids something where they don’t have to pay for anything,” Erin said at the gala. “We don’t ever want it to be a financial reason that kids can’t get involved.”

Miller said Friday that the Rockets program now has between 180 and 200 actual Special Olympics athletes (who have been diagnosed with an intellectual disability) and another 40 to 60 Unified Partners, athletes who have no such disabilities. Those facts were part of a presentation she gave during the event, and she said that went with one of her goals for that evening – educating the visitors, who also were the ones contributing the funds. 

Coming away from the event, she said she believed that goal was accomplished. 

“Yeah, there were a lot of times I’d be talking to people and they would say, ‘I didn’t know Special Olympics did so much,’” she said. “Others told me that they thought it was just for kids. They didn’t realize that actually more of our athletes are adults.

“They also didn’t realize how much we did. They picture a one-day track and field event and that’s it, and we told them that we actually participate in 10 sports (out of a possible 15) and we have 15 different sports teams and they practice year-round, and the idea of our athletes having a competitive nature eludes most people as well. They think of it as a fun day or a field day, rather than it involving training and being a competitive program.”

Morris also said that a date for the second gala has been set on Sept. 25, 2020. The venue is still being determined, so he said Friday that it was too early to go public with an announcement. 

The one thing he did say is that the event has already outgrown the Marriott venue.

“This was a very limited VIP event this time. Now, we’re going to open the doors a little wider and see if we can’t make magic happen in 2020,” Morris said. “Our goal next year is $150,000. My vision is that this will be one of the most highly anticipated events held in Murray, Kentucky year after year after year. 

“Tighten your boot straps. It’s going to be awesome.”