MANKATO — The parade of ballgowns and suits began arriving 90 minutes before the event.
As the line began to wrap around the block of the Verizon Wireless Center, women in tiaras and sequined gowns chatted and complimented each other on their dresses. Men carried bouquets of flowers and corsages to give to their ladies upon arrival.
Josh Peterson, who jokingly called himself the “Asian Persuasion,” brought a purple corsage and carefully placed it on his date's wrist before the couple went inside the civic center to begin a night that would be pretty hard to forget — the 15th annual Fall Elegance gala.
The early arrivals are not unusual, said Vicki Apel, foundation director at MRCI. At the conclusion of each year's Fall Elegance formal for people with disabilities, clients start immediately talking about next year's event.
“You walk away and your face hurts from smiling so much,” Apel said. “It's an absolutely marvelous time.”
At this year's event — co-sponsored by ACCESS, LEEP and MRCI — about 750 people were in attendance to mingle, eat, dance and take in the décor. The lighting was dim. The tables were decked out with floral displays. And guests were dressed in prom-like attire: pretty dresses and smart suits.
But Apel doesn't think “prom” is a good word to describe Fall Elegance.
“It's so much more than that,” she said. “Ladies wear tiaras, have their hair done. Some coming from residential homes have hired limos. It's incredible. It's really kind of their night to be treated like royalty.”
The overall purpose, she said, is to recognized the contributions of people with disabilities in the community and give them a night of fun. And over the years, as word has spread about the event, more and more attend each year.
“It has grown to mammoth proportions,” she said.
Steve O'Leary puts it on his calendar every year, he said. Saturday night was the fourth time he attended Fall Elegance, and he was dressed to kill.
He looks forward to the good music and the food, he said, especially the cheese. And the main reason he keeps coming back is pretty simple: “to have a good time.”
There was a short program Saturday night, followed by a dinner. There were also drawings for door prizes and a DJ.
“That's the highlight of the evening,” Apel said. “They tolerate the program, and then they just want to get out on the dance floor.”
Apel noted that people with disabilities make a wide range of contributions to the community, including working and paying rent, putting money into the local economy, and volunteerism.
“Saturday night is their night,” Apel wrote about the event. “It is a night of recognition that says, 'Thank You! You matter, and you are valued.'”