Annual Event Benefits Birmingham Autism Center

A Night Under the Big Top” – along with Glenwood – is like “The Little Engine That Could.”

“We started incredibly small,” Glenwood Junior Board president Clay Ryan remembered about the first circus-themed gala benefiting Glenwood, the Autism and Behavioral Health Center.

But four years later, on Leap Day night, hundreds of guests came in from the rain – and kept pouring into B&A Warehouse all night long – to play casino games and dance to Four on the Floor.

Beforehand, the Glenwood Junior Board was as optimistic as the Little Engine facing the steep incline, murmuring “I think I can.”

Junior Board members thought they could draw a crowd to clown around under the big tent. But even Clay and chairwoman Magen Hughes were surprised when nearly 600 came to the circus. Glenwood president/CEO Lee Yount was so excited by the turnout she stayed past 1 a.m. counting 516 tickets (some guests neglected to turn in ticket stubs). A Night Under the Big Top, in its fourth year, raised more than $90,000. Glenwood, too, started small – with only 18 students enrolled in the Allan Cott School. Classes were held in rooms at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. The school (named for the Alabama-born physician who first treated children with autism) evolved into Glenwood, which today provides 25 services and programs to more than 2,000 children, adolescents and adults annually.

Kacy Mitchell there with Guy, remembered the early days of Glenwood during an era when mental illness in families was often hushed. Glenwood faced a mountain of silence. “The whole stigma of mental illness has been lifted,” Kacy observed as she looked around and saw the widespread support of the benefit. Today autism is acknowledged as an epidemic, and Glenwood is the oldest autism services provider in Alabama. “Our children grew up,” Kacy said, referring to the students who attended the Allan Cott School, many of whom are now in adult day and residential programs at Glenwood named for her father Glenn Ireland.

But she could have as easily meant the families who started Glenwood in the 1970s. A third generation is now involved with Glenwood on the Junior Board – Guy Mitchell III, Kat Drennen and Holly Shepherd Lollar. Patrick Drummond has been on the Junior Board and is now on the primary board. He is chairman of the Katherine R. Ireland Memorial Golf Tournament April 14 at Shoal Creek. Dottie Mitchell is special projects coordinator at Glenwood.

The three-ring-circus fun began at the entrance to the Crossings Room with a dramatic big top – made of red tulle by Uncut Flowers- tenting the registration table. Displayed on a brick wall was a large angel painting by Wendy Lovoy, carrying out the national theme “Angels for Autism,” an auction item that was taken home by Joe and Julia Ann Cleage.

LuLu, Snuggles, Tottle Lou and Lindy Lou mixed with guests and created balloon sculptures. Under the clown disguises were Judy Davenport, Debbie Sartino, Gloria Glenn and Linda Wolfe, who donated their time. In the silent auction were paintings by Glenwood clients, drawing competitive bidding. As guests looked at the silent auction, they sampled different dips offered on a table covered with a black cloth and featuring a large olive jar holding peacock feathers and curly willow.

The adjacent Brick Room was decorated with lanterns and garlands of lights. On tables were balloon sculptures and boxes of popcorn, some kernels spilling onto colorful tablecloths. A grits station featured grits with cheese, mushrooms and other toppings. Also served were chicken skewers, roast beef sandwiches, chicken salad biscuits and an array of desserts.

Amid the magic of the circus, Kat Drennen celebrated her Leap Day birthday with fiancé, Blake Segars. Blake surprised Kat earlier in the week by throwing a birthday party befitting a 7-year-old. Guests skated, played laser tag and video games, and rode go-carts at Trussville PlayStation. Kat received age-appropriate gifts, such as a Disney Princess phone and Silly String. The cake was decorated with her photograph at approximately 7, wearing her school uniform.

Blake and his bride are planning an April 12 wedding. “I definitely take advantage of it,” she said about her Leap Day birth. Every year by Leap Year, she begins celebrating in February and stretches her birthday partying into March.

Cara Turano, Kerry Edwards and Brandi Williams enjoyed the revelry, even though they had to be up early the next morning to be on the road at 7 a.m. to arrive at Seaside in time to pick up race packets. They ran in the Seaside Half Marathon.

Tony Kurre from WJOX hosted the live auction, with an alternately laid-back and “in-your-face” style. He urged one bidder to go $20 higher. The bidder protested, “But I already have the winning bid.” Tony promised to contribute $50 toward the purchase of the desired auction item – a diamond necklace and a dozen red roses each month for a year – for the higher bid. He kept his promise, brandishing $50 cash and giving it to the bidder who outbid himself. Guy Mitchell III bought the lunch with Paul Finebaum for $1,000. (Where were Shane and I-Man to run up the bidding?) Paul has been a friend to Glenwood as a volunteer at the annual golf tournament.

Among guests were board member Jim Sullivan; Frances Drennen, who flew in from Washington, D.C.; Mallie Lynn; Sperry Snow; Angie and Phillip Young, who is a board member and parent of an adult resident with autism; Carolyn Young; Jan and Grantland Rice and daughter KC and son Grantland and daughter-in-law Lauren Rice; Ivan and Nicole Hand and Stephen Hand; Tere Thornton; Walker and Evan Dorman; Rebecca Sibley; Vinnie and Debbie Schilleci; Sara and Joseph Schilleci, former University of Alabama basketball player Terrence Meade; and James Coats. They stayed late, playing roulette and blackjack. Camaraderie grew among those around the tables as they won and lost play money. Chips were turned in for raffle tickets for prizes – a flat screen TV, an iPod Nano and a digital camera – at the end of the evening.

As always after the show, the circus has to be dismantled. The Junior Board stayed behind after the last guests departed – well after midnight – to pack away the circus until next year. Leap Year may have muddled the timing, but to the Junior Board, annual means next year, even on Leap Day.

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