ESP kids to showcase talents at 6th Annual Big Hearts Pageant
Every February Northeast Georgia’s most special children come together for an uplifting pageant where every child is crowned as winner for their big talents and even bigger hearts.
On Feb. 9, 50 of Extra Special People’s (ESP) most special kids will show people in the community all of the abilities they do have, leaving all disabilities far behind them. The Sixth Annual Big Hearts Pageant is the single biggest fundraiser of the year for local nonprofit ESP. Last year the event raised over $40,000 to better after-school enrichment programs and summer camps for children with developmental disabilities in Northeast Georgia. As a result of last year’s fundraiser, 40 more children have found a safe and loving home at ESP.
“The Big Hearts Pageant is a time for individuals with disabilities to be proud of themselves and feel confident in their own skin,” Executive Director Laura Whitaker said. “It is a time for the community to come to show support and belief in treating individuals for who they are. This fundraising event gives our kids the opportunity to attend programs and camps at their most favorite place on earth- ESP.”
For the second time in seven years, the Big Hearts Pageant will take place at the Classic Center in downtown Athens. The silent auction doors open at 4 p.m. to the public with items donated from stores and businesses such as the Foundry Park Inn and Spa, Disney World, Atlanta Zoo, Georgia Aquarium and a signed Taylor Swift guitar. Doors for the pageant open at 6:30 p.m. The pageant kicks off at 7:00 p.m.
All proceeds from the Big Hearts Pageant go directly towards benefitting ESP services. The organization provides after-school enrichment programs to educate and entertain kids, while giving them a safe space to interact with kids with the same special needs and talents as each other.
ESPiranhas, the swim team; ESPicassos, art classes; ESPoses, adapted yoga classes and ESPioneers, outdoor education adventures, are just some of the programs available for kids to participate in. Every penny raised at the pageant goes towards bettering these programs and sending more children to ESP summer camp.
“ESP isn't just a place my daughter can go to on occasion,” said Julie Shoemaker, the mother of Hannah, a 16-year-old who has been a Big Hearts contestant for the past four years. “ESP and all it represents has become a way of life for her and for our family. Before ESP Hannah was very isolated, she went to school and came home and hung out with her parents. ESP has given Hannah a social life with kids her own age and has taught her independence skills that she could not have learned otherwise.”
Hosts of the event Vince and Matthew Dooley are no strangers to the pageant or organization. Vince hosted the pageant in 2012 with his wife Barbara. The Dooley’s grandson, Matthew, is one of the extra special children in the community who has experienced first hand the benefits of ESP.
Vince Dooley won’t be the only local celebrity in attendance at the pageant. Choosing to use his Saturday night to support the kids of ESP is University of Georgia starting quarterback Aaron Murray. Like last year, Murray will give the pageant participants the royal treatment as he escorts them on and off the stage. University of Georgia football players Ty Frix, Arthur Lynch and Ben Jones will also be in attendance in hopes the community will come out to show their own big hearts and support the contestants.
“The pageant is a special event that means so much to these kids,” Aaron Murray said. “But at the end of the day, I think those who attend are just as touched as these kids are. To see the smiles on the kids’ faces as they get dressed up and share their talents is truly an amazing sight to see.”
A great opportunity for a family night out, the pageant provides an opportunity for the disabilities of the children to melt away on stage and members of the community to see everything the kids are capable of. In 2012, 13-year-old Lyric Rogers took to the stage to sing, “Lean On Me”, leaving all traces of Autism backstage. Rogers received a standing ovation.
“This night is so special because you feel every emotion watching it,” Special Events and Communications Coordinator Jordan Beaman said. “ You will cry, smile and laugh because the kids say the funniest things. You never know what will come out of their mouths or what will happen. It is wonderfully unpredictable. The best part is when you see a kid go up there to sing a song, dance or answer a question and you see the joy on their face when they get an applause. They get to feel how special they are and know they are worthy to be on that stage.”
Tickets for this special night are available online at classiccenter.com or at the Classic Center box office. Visit extraspecialpeople.com to learn more about the event and the contestants.
Contact Jordan Beaman at Jordan@extraspecialpeople.com for further questions about the Big Hearts Pageant, how to volunteer or how to donate to the cause.