Band of Sisters: Putting Together a Gala for Women in the Congo
As the party got closer ("Five weeks!!" "Four weeks!!" read the subject lines of Jen's e-mails in a running countdown), the jobs intensified. Husbands came home early from work so wives could attend last-minute meetings. Meals got simpler—"definitely lots of chicken nuggets," says Stacey Breckling—and laundry baskets overflowed. But if the women found it hard to juggle fundraising with the demands of toddlers, babies, and full- and part-time jobs, no one complained. Steeped in stories of girls attacked until they became incontinent, women gang-raped as their children were forced to watch, 70-year-old women abused by groups of boys young enough to be their grandchildren, who could complain? "You read so many horrible stories in the newspaper it can feel overwhelming, like there's nothing you can do," says Jane Nadasi, who worked on communications for the event. "This experience taught me you just have to put that feeling aside. You can do something; everyone can do something—it's just a matter of being brave, of not being afraid to make those calls."
It also felt good to know that they were teaching their children an important lesson. "All of us have to be the people we want our kids to be," says Jen. "When my husband came home from work, my 4-year-old said, 'Mommy worked on her Congo party today.' My husband asked, 'Do you know why Mommy is making a Congo party?' And my son said, 'Because the people there are crying.'"
As it turned out, Mommy's Congo party was a greater success than even Mommy, with her boundless optimism, could have predicted. The elegant Manhattan ballroom was pulsing with African music, waiters serving drinks on silver trays, guests bidding on silent auction items, art students proudly explaining the meaning of the works they had created in honor of the event. More than $150,000 was raised and at least 400 people attended, including Jeffrey Gettleman and representatives from the United Nations, the U.S. State Department, and the New York mayor's office.
Looking gorgeous in a navy blue dress, Jen worked the room with a masterful mix of focus and charm, paying particularly close attention to her notable guests. It clearly meant a lot to her to have "VIPs" in the room, as if their presence confirmed the importance of the event and also, perhaps, the seriousness of the stay-at-home mom who, in her words, "spent the last year and a half building Legos." What she didn't seem to realize as she fussed over her important people was that they were making an even greater fuss over her. "I got 150 e-mails about my story," says Jeffrey Gettleman. "But nobody picked up the ball and ran with it like Jen. There are lots of starters in the world, people who start things but then lose steam. Jen followed through."
"She followed her gut," says Eve Ensler. "All these women did. They heard the call. They responded. That's what we all need to do. Follow your instincts. Rise to what is inside you. That's how to change the world."
Lisa Wolfe is a writer in New York City.