Pictured above, 2020 Girlfriend Gala Chair Courtney Linam addresses event details on Facebook. Photo courtesy of the Girlfriend Gala.
By Katie Bohannon, News Editor
United Way’s annual Girlfriend Gala hosted its first virtual fundraiser on June 25. Despite the fact that Gadsden women could not experience the event in person, organizers ensured that the night continued to celebrate friendships and sponsor a worthy cause.
The 2020 Girlfriend Gala included messages from several local business owners and supporters, entertainment from musicians like Kelli Johnson, Drake White and Fee Fee Redmon and countless door prizes awarded to participants.
“I know this is not what any of us were hoping for,” said event Chair Courtney Linam. “We all want to be together and very soon hopefully we can be, but right now we are celebrating these programs, Success by 6 and everyone who has helped us make this possible. It is so important for our community that we keep these programs going for these kids and make sure they receive these books.”
United Way’s Success by 6 initiative partners with the Dolly Parton Imagination Library to encourage school readiness and inspire a love of reading in children from a young age. From birth until age five, children will receive one age appropriate book per month. The proceeds from the Girlfriend Gala provide books for thousands of children throughout Etowah County, fostering an interest in learning, nurturing cognitive development and changing lives one story at a time.
The Girlfriend Gala began in the 1990s when former United Way of Etowah County executive director Karen Owen began noticing that many children in Etowah County had little of what they needed or wanted and possessed few resources to become successful in life. Inspired to make a change in these children’s lives, she sought out programs or services that focused on early brain development and finally settled on Success by 6.
As Owen, Joanne Hightower and Jane Hicks laid the blueprints for Success by 6 in Etowah County, they realized they required additionally funding to ensure they fulfilled their mission. During this time, an article published in a local newspaper featured Missy Moon Burchart and Sydney Stone, two Gadsden natives whose everlasting friendship withstood the tests of time and distance.
Though Burchart lived in Michigan and Stone lived in New York, the pair recognized Gadsden as the location where they saw each other most. The town where their friendship blossomed remained the heart of their relationship year after year, as they reunited and reminisced about the city they once called home. While Burchart and Stone discussed creating a nonprofit fundraiser for Gadsden, their ideas never manifested until they found themselves sitting in Owen’s office one day to brainstorm a collaboration of two concepts: Success by 6 and the value of friendships, the essence of the Girlfriend Gala.
“The Girlfriend Gala is a true testament to the power of women and the power of friendship,” said Burchart. “Owen, Hightower and Hicks really saw the vision of a night that celebrated girlfriends and gave back.”
Burchart and Stone invited influential women who affected their lives growing up in Gadsden, and women who shared their vision for planting seeds of success in children’s lives at a young age. 150 women attended the first Girlfriend Gala at the Mary G. Hardin Center for Cultural Arts, raising between five and six thousand dollars. Now, the gala annually raises 10 times that amount.
“The women of Gadsden and United Way have made [the Girlfriend Gala] the success that it is,” said Stone. “[I hope that] it continues to be successful and people to continue to enjoy it and celebrate friendships, because my friendship with Missy is one of the greatest things in my life. I’m so grateful I was born in Gadsden and that I got to meet her, and that we are still friends this many years later. Hopefully a new generation of women will attend the gala and celebrate their own friendships, and continue to give back.”