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 showed 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. This year the event raised over $70,000 to better after-school enrichment programs and summer camps for children with developmental disabilities in Northeast Georgia. As a result of this year’s fundraiser, ESP will expand on current services, including the ability to have more kids join ESP, thrive and grow in a safe, loving community.
“These kids and young adults deserve to feel welcomed wherever they go,” Assistant Director of ESP Eli Hill said. “From a small nonprofit in Watkinsville to the stage of a packed Classic Center in Athens, the extent of that welcome is inspiring. It is a true definition of community.”
For the second time in six years, the Big Hearts Pageant took place at the Classic Center in downtown Athens. With 1500 people in the audience and 200 volunteers in place, the event and special contestants tugged on the heartstrings of community members.
“Watching the kids show us how joyful, happy and capable they are was uplifting,” audience member Sophie Conboy said. “ESP is doing great things for the kids, and I hope after Big Hearts they will be able to do even more.”
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.
Hosts of the event Vince and Matthew Dooley were 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 was not the only local celebrity in attendance at the pageant. Choosing to use his Saturday night to support the kids of ESP was University of Georgia starting quarterback Aaron Murray. Murray gave the pageant participants the royal treatment as he escorted them on and off the stage and the audience a surprise performance when he danced to “Gangnam Style” with his teammates Ty Frix, Michael Erdman, Blake Sailors and Kosta Vavlas.
“The pageant is a special event that means so much to these kids,” Aaron Murray said. “At the end of the day, I think those who attend the event 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 was truly an amazing sight to see.”
The pageant provided 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. ESP participant Lyric Rogers took to the stage to sing “We Are The Champions,” leaving all traces of Autism backstage and the audience in awe of her voice. Marc Pizza, an enthusiastic 6-year-old with Down syndrome brought laughs and smiles from all when he acted as a Power Ranger on stage and 4- year-old Avery Elrod brought tears to the eyes of the audience when she sang “Jesus Loves Me.”
“It was amazing to see how the whole community came together under one roof to celebrate the abilities of our amazing contestants,” Special Events and Communications Coordinator of ESP Jordan Beaman said. “It was so encouraging hearing everyone afterwards and how the contestants performing brought them to tears. Our kids are incredible and I know they made an impact on everyone who came.”
The event brought the Athens community together. Mayor Nancy Denson; Miss UGA 2013, Jenna Jackson; Cincinnati Bengals football player, Dennis Roland; and Ms. Senior Athens 2012, Marie Norris, judged the pageant while the silent auction provided community members the option to bid on items donated from a variety of stores and businesses. The Foundry Park Inn and Spa, Disney World, Atlanta Zoo, Georgia Aquarium, and the World of Coca-Cola were just a few organizations that donated to the auction.
Title sponsors of the event were the Classic Center, Epting Events, Fairway Outdoor Advertising, Dr. and Mrs. Jon Poling, Ed and Donnie Cramer, Chick-fil-A, Athens Social Media, Stylized Portraiture, and Tena’s Fine Diamonds and Jewelry.
“We could not have put on that amazing event for our children if it weren't for our sponsors,” Executive Director of ESP Laura Whitaker said. “Gifts from our sponsors ensure that every dollar, from ticket to t-shirt sales, People's Choice Award to the silent auction, goes back into ESP programs. Because of them, we can serve more amazing children.”