By STEPHEN O'KANE, Staff Writer | Published October 28, 2010
A record crowd participated in the fourth annual “Evening for Hope” of the Atlanta Society of St. Vincent de Paul, a dinner and fundraiser for the Society’s person-to-person work with the poor, on Saturday, Oct. 9, at the Cobb Galleria Centre.
Featuring speakers, fellowship and food, the event drew more than 400 people and raised nearly $175,000, said John Berry, executive director of the Atlanta SVdP Society. One hundred percent of the net proceeds will assist programs offered by the Society in Georgia to support people in need.
“Evening for Hope 2010 was the most successful and best of the four that we have run so far,” said Berry. The first raised about $23,000, he said.
“Despite the tough economic climate, the proceeds of the gala from sponsors and attendees exceeded our goals. The attendance was one of the highest yet, and the program couldn’t have been better,” he said.
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory celebrated Mass prior to the dinner for those attending. Other guests included Auxiliary Bishop Luis R. Zarama, Milton Little Jr., president of the United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta, and Major James Seiler, area commander for the Salvation Army Metro Atlanta Area Command. Russ Spencer, anchor at FOX 5 Atlanta, was the emcee. Dr. James Talley, retired chief executive officer of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, was the general chairman for the evening.
People enjoyed the on-the-spot creativity of Michael Ostaski, a performance speed painter who created large-scale portraits of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in a few minutes while the audience watched. The paintings are now up for auction on the SVdP website, and the proceeds will also support the efforts of the Society, which has many parish conferences where volunteers assist those in need. Some of its services include direct aid, food pantries, temporary shelter, training and education, thrift stores, and “sweet dreams” bed donations.
“Evening for Hope has three main goals,” said Berry. “First, to raise awareness of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in the community, second, to celebrate the incredible work of our 4,000-plus volunteers who work to help people in need here in Georgia, and third, to raise funds to support programs that help our conferences support those who come to them for help.”
“On all three levels, Evening for Hope 2010 was a home run hit out of the park,” he said.
The keynote speaker was Eduardo Verástegui, an actor and producer who played a leading role in the 2006 film “Bella,” a life-affirming movie that deals with the realities of unplanned pregnancy.
Verástegui shared his moving testimony with the crowd, recalling his transformation from the life of an international celebrity to someone striving to use his craft for positive purposes.
He began acting in Mexican soap operas, eventually moving to feature-length films. He attained his childhood dream of fame and wealth but soon realized that with all of his successes he felt empty. After making a decision to support only positive films, Verástegui did not work for nearly two years because of the conflict between the roles he was offered and his new values.
After discussions with friends and family, Verástegui decided to enter a monastery with the intention of dedicating his life to God and prayer. He received guidance from a priest, Father Juan Rivas, who helped him realize that he did not need to become a priest and could use his talent to achieve the life change he was seeking.
Shortly afterward he helped create Metanoia Films, a production company dedicated to promoting films that support and affirm positive human values. The company’s first film was “Bella,” which received the “People’s Choice Award” at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival.
He told the crowd gathered at the Evening for Hope that the purpose of their lives is “to know, love and serve our Lord Jesus Christ,” a comment that was met with applause. He called everyone in the audience “heroes” for the work they continue to do. Even though he realized he was “preaching to the choir,” he said he wanted to share his story to encourage the SVdP volunteers and supporters in their work.
“Eduardo’s testimony was moving and incredible,” said Berry. “I met Eduardo almost two years ago, and when I asked him to be our speaker I knew that he had an amazing story of transformation and faith that would resonate with our attendees. I can’t count the number of people who have told me that his talk at Evening for Hope deeply impacted them and that they got much from it. I was especially happy that we had some of our new Vincentian youth representatives there to hear his message.”
The Society of St. Vincent de Paul was first established in Paris, France, in the 1800s by a Catholic layman. Present in Georgia since 1903, when a parish conference opened at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, SVdP has continuously developed centers to provide some help to the growing number of people living at or near the poverty line in Georgia. There are over 70 local conferences throughout the area. The mission of the Society is twofold: to help its volunteers grow spiritually in imitation of Christ while they serve those in need with person-to-person acts of charity.
“Each year Evening for Hope gets better and the bar gets raised for the next year,” said Berry. “The hard work of the host committee, board of directors, and staff of SVdP is the reason it is so successful. They did such an amazing job this year—from bringing in new sponsor donors, new attendees and making all the logistical details come together. SVdP Atlanta owes them a debt of gratitude for all their work.”
For information about the work of the Atlanta Society of St. Vincent de Paul, visit www.svdpatl.org.