The goal was in sight, but the goal was crazy.
There were three weeks left until the Enloe High School Charity Ball on December 10, and its sixty-five student organizers were packed elbow-to-elbow, laptop-to-laptop in a classroom a few days before Thanksgiving. Dozens of pesky details remained to be settled, but the only question keeping people awake was this one: Would they reach the goal of $120,000 they’d promised to raise for this year’s charity, Urban Ministries of Wake County?
No, that’s not a typo. I didn’t add a zero. The Enloe Ball, a project of the student council, is off the charts with ambition, so much so that it might seem far beyond what a bunch of public high school students could accomplish.
Yet for twelve years running, the Enloe kids have come through, raising more than $400,000 so far. They’ve met their goal every time. The next year, they set it higher. Any list of the great wonders of Raleigh is incomplete without the Enloe ball.
Still, this was scant consolation to Julia Weaver, the outwardly calm but admittedly anxious senior who chairs this year’s ball committee. When I arrive, she’s standing at the front of the room fielding questions and offering a pep talk: Keep sending those emails to family and friends. Follow up. Don’t be afraid to approach new people or the company down the street—now’s the time. One student, she says with perfect earnestness, raised $1,400 in a weekend by going door-to-door.
When she finishes, the room erupts, as a dozen sub-committees plunge loudly into their tasks. One group is in charge of getting coffee donated and selling it at Enloe. Another is selling Cheerwine. There’s one in charge of Space Jam, a separate December 8 event at City Market that will feature Enloe and Southeast Raleigh Regional High School musicians.
There’s also a silent art auction this Saturday, December 3 at the Visual Art Exchange—admission and refreshments are free—with yet another committee in charge of obtaining the artwork. There’s a decorations committee for the ball itself, plus a publicity committee complete with posters, a website, and, of course, a hashtag—#AllinForUrbanMin.
In short, this was reminiscent of a political campaign, without the politics but with all the other headaches of organizing volunteers and sending them forth in battle.
“You must be feeling a lot of pressure,” I say to Weaver.
“A little, yes sir,” she answers. “Oh, yeah.”
She stops, exhales, and, as if she’s giving herself a pep talk, says: “Sleep, it comes and goes. I’m stressed about a lot of things, but I know that everyone working on this is capable, and it’s for a good cause. That’s the main thing that I like to focus on—not just the numbers and the goal. Focus on the cause.”
The cause, Urban Ministries of Wake County, is a great fit for Enloe, a magnet school in Southeast Raleigh. Enloe exists as a response to Raleigh’s racially and economically segregated past. As a magnet, the school takes applicants from the more affluent parts of Raleigh and Wake County and adds them to a base population of students who live in nearby lower-income neighborhoods. The result is one of North Carolina’s best and most interesting schools, with a student body that looks like the United Nations.
Urban Ministries, meanwhile, is an anti-poverty nonprofit created by thirteen Raleigh churches in 1981. Today, it serves some 27,000 low-income people annually through its food pantry, its Open Door Clinic for medical needs, and its Helen Wright Center, which houses otherwise homeless women and their children.
When the Enloe students choose their cause for a year, it isn’t only to throw money at an organization. It’s to raise awareness within the student body and throughout Raleigh about the needs of the poor and the fact that they live just down the street or around the corner. Raising awareness means posters and brochures, but it also means that students will visit and volunteer at the pantry, the clinic, and the homeless shelter.
It’s educational—in the very best sense—for students and the community.
“Urban Ministries is an organization that students can relate to, that’s local, and that’s addressing three important issues of poverty—the three H’s of hunger, health care, and homelessness,” says Weaver. “We’re very excited about Urban Ministries.”
Speaking of excitement, I watched last year as the 2015 Enloe ball organizers sweated and strained to reach their announced goal of raising $100,000 for Learning Together, preschools serving special-needs kids in Wake County. I doubted they’d make it—the previous record was $92,000.
But come the night of the ball, the leaders unveiled a giant check, not for $100,000, but $118,000. It was a moment of absolute elation, a championship achievement that a thousand people who were there won’t soon forget. I won’t.
So, how are they doing this year?
I checked in with Yash Patil, the senior whose job it is to keep track of the money, make sure it gets to the bank, account for every penny, and tell everyone else if it’s going well or badly. He was out in the hallway, his laptop balanced on one knee and his back against the wall, showing his finance group that, though their fundraising total was just $35,000 with three weeks to go, they were ahead of last year’s pace.
Clicking through his graphs, Patil showed me that fundraising was on the uptick, most ticket sales were yet to come, and all the trends were positive. Contributions had come from eight states, from France and Germany, from corporate sponsors. He exuded confidence. That’s what you want in a leader, yes?
This was right after the elections, and Patil had them on his mind. Enloe’s donors, he said, ranged from the very conservative to the ultra-liberal.
“I feel like what’s the most beautiful thing about Charity Ball is that, after the most divisive election in history that we had recently—not only in the presidential race but in the gubernatorial race and even in the Senate race—people can put those differences aside and come together to donate for a good cause, come together for Charity Ball,” he says.
Back in the classroom, Julia Weaver was reminding everyone to take down names and addresses from anyone giving a donation. If donors are respected, she says, they’ll be more likely to give again when a future Enloe fundraiser calls them up.
“Remember, it’s not just about fulfilling a goal,” Weaver reminds the crowd. “It’s about keeping our promise.”
I left with no doubt in mind that they will.