The Lowcountry Down Syndrome Society celebrated their 14th Annual Night of Champions at the Savannah Convention Center, Friday, May 12, presenting awards honoring five outstanding employees and their companies as well as an elementary school principal for his advocacy for differently abled students.
When I say this is my most favorite nonprofit awards ceremony of the year, I mean it! For over a decade, I have checked the date to see what night I will get the chance to cheer, get goose bumps and happy cry when I hear the heart-touching stories of the honorees.
Arriving early to interview tonight’s award winners, I met my first recipient at the top of the escalator and surrounded by family, friends and co-workers. Say hey to Wallace Ganger, a 31-year-old dump truck driver for McGraley Company in Springfield.
Sipping on a Corona, the dark-haired quiet guy tells me, “I was here last year with B & B Care Services and learned how they help people with disabilities like Aspergers get a job. I never dreamed I would get to drive a dump truck, and I have learned a lot of patience. I am also accident free!”
After a fabulous video clip of Wallace with his supporters, I glance up and see Miss Personality herself prancing towards me. Twirling around in a pink shiny dress, Kenzie Hancock informs that she is still working at Bitty & Beau’s Coffee and that she is still besties with my next arrival, Elissa Brown.
I have known both of these young ladies for over a decade and it makes my heart proud to see how they have grown in confidence and life skills.
Still riding her three-wheeled adaptive Tryke to work at Kroger on Wilmington Island, 31-year-old Elissa tells me, “I have been working at Kroger for five years and I have a roommate now.”
Walking up to Elissa is her Community Living Support person, Susan Tauster.
The CSL tells me, “I provide support in the community for Elissa to live a social and healthy life,” before posing for a pic together.
Next up, way up, is 6’8” Thomas DeGeorge and his gorgeous wife Molly along with fellow Choate Construction dude Ken Zoll followed by XCel Strategies Jay Thompson and his son Paul. Beside them is Rock Media Productions Daniel Rock and his wife Danielle. Chatting with the New York natives, I learned that they have been married 18 years, that Daniel created the videos for tonight’s event and Danielle is a teacher at Ebenezer in Effingham County.
After a fab pic of the nicest couple ever, I mosey over to hug on Employability’s Josh Lopez and Dana Hicks-Cutter with 2015 past Champion Billy Behrens. Stoked to learn that Billy is still employed at Gulfstream, I get even more amped when I see Iyaonna Weathers arriving with what has to be every employee of Grainger Honda.
Sporting long red braids, the 27-year-old gets a little shy when her boss and tonight’s title sponsor Bill Grainger tells me, “Iyaonna is always smiling! She has been one the best hires I have ever made and she, along with Nathan Chamblee and Shavonna Walker, have my work family even closer.”
By now the lobby is overflowing with over 600 supporters like Mary and Stratton Leopold and his honoree, Javon Kelly. Working for six years with Leopold’s Ice Cream, I can personally attest to the fact that Javon’s positive attitude changes the whole ice cream experience. He makes this sweet experience even sweeter!
There are so many long time supporters that I love that I start hugging everyone like Teresa and David “Fish” MIhuta. I adore this couple! Noting her calm acceptance of marrying a live wire of positivity, I talk with Teresa about her recent retirement from Maersk, sleeping late and going to Ohio to see her mom.
More hugs are given to Brian Hussey and his gorgeous wife Pam followed by a yell across the room to pause Michael Holton. One of LDSS’s most famous celebrities, the 29-year-old is sporting one of his 30 signature fedoras. He has an entourage with him and is wanting to talk about his job at South Effingham Elementary School.
“I get to greet students every morning with Principal Mark Weese, collect attendance records and work in the technology and media center. I love co-editing the yearbook with Kellie Lee and working with all the kids from kindergarten to fifth grade,” shares the LDSS vice president.
Before I make it inside to sit with Savannah’s reigning PR queen Marjorie Young, I run into the always happy Daniel Nunn. Now with Prefered Site Construction and loving his flexible work life, Daniel has another reason to smile. Meet Shannon Hanley, a former San Diego California resident that Daniel met online and convinced to move over to the East coast. From the looks of it, this online love story is the real deal!
It’s showtime! LDSS President Joe Marchese takes the stage to talk about the delight of his life, his daughter Ella, to prepare us for the excitement to come and to introduce tonight’s emcee, Carson Fortner.
And what a night it is! We laugh, cry and cheer for the next hour.
From Devente Sams’s full time position in the nutritional field at Springfield Elementary School after interning and substituting, Erik Virgil conquering a spinal cord infection that left him in a wheelchair to moving up at Goodwill to Charlotte Quaile’s 39 years at Goodwill where her blindness has not stopped her production tech role, these three remarkable people join Javonte and Wallace on stage to a thunderous standing ovation.
Until you sit at a table that has tissue packs ready for your tears, you haven’t experienced a night where the human spirit is celebrated so sincerely. It doesn’t matter what race, size or age these champions are because they exemplify the very best human qualities that show us that differences are beautiful and that we are more alike than we are different.
Every night should be a champions night. The world would be a better place and I encourage you to meet me next year for Lowcountry Down Syndrome Society’s Night of Champions!