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Ashley Hirtzel: Event did much more than just raise money

It’s gala season, and everyone knows what that means – pulling out the tuxedo or dress that’s been collecting dust for months and checking the bank account to see if it’s financially possible to donate to a new charity.

On April 11, Deaf Access Services (DAS), a nonprofit organization responsible for assisting the deaf and hard of hearing in Western New York, held its very first gala. The event, called the 2015 Spring Gala, was attended by roughly 200 people at Statler City in downtown Buffalo. The intimate night included cocktails, dinner, entertainment and guest speakers – you know, all of your run-of-the-mill requirements.

But there was one thing this newcomer had that many other fundraisers haven’t seen in a few years, because their events have become as second nature as breathing. It was a chance to give people a glimpse of what it’s like to be deaf.

At one point, I took a moment to watch everyone paying attention to the speakers. Puzzlement and awe came over their faces as the guest speaker and DAS Board President Michael Cross graced the stage and a voice from afar started speaking for him. This is what it looks like when an American Sign Language interpreter voices for someone who is deaf. But for many who have never seen it before, it can be an interesting and confusing experience.

Interpreting is one of the many different functions of DAS. The organization connects its clients with interpreters for doctor’s visits, legal appointments, etc. DAS is also responsible for helping your late-deafened mother learn sign language, assisting your hard of hearing aunt with her job search or helping your deaf brother understand how to fill out an application for HEAP or SNAP benefits. These sound like basic services that people should know are available in their community, but I’ll tell you, many had no idea that DAS did any of this. They didn’t even know DAS existed. But there was one thing that everyone who took the stage had in common. They all said they knew someone who is deaf.

As I walked around the gala, I could see people trying to communicate with one another. There were interpreters on hand to bridge the communication gap, but it seemed guests really wanted to figure it out on their own.

I spoke to one volunteer who was originally only there to put in her time for a club she’s involved in, but along the way she learned something new. She turned to me and said, “Wow, this is so interesting. I didn’t know there were so many deaf people in Buffalo.”

But she wasn’t the only one. There were a number of people at the event from big area businesses and they seemed to have been submerged in deaf culture. A few of them told me they couldn’t wait until next year’s event and they wanted to donate something to the silent auction or take classes. This was my personal “aha” moment.

Sometimes a fundraiser is about more than raising money. It’s more than the silent auctions, 50/50 raffles, donors and speeches. It’s about getting your organization’s mission across and showing people what you’re all about. Because as we know, seeing is believing. So, even if your event doesn’t bank a lot of money, there is a bigger takeaway that’s priceless.

By experiencing someone else’s life, you will know how to help. Just by having the event, DAS created buzz – and where there is buzz there is action.