When Garrett Higley joined the Wright House Wellness Center’s board of directors in 2008, there was no doubt in his mind it was a special place. He’d moved to Austin from Houston, where he’d been very involved with Bering Omega, a community service organization for individuals with HIV and AIDS. With a welcoming feel, the Wright House had an authentic sense of family and home for those it served, people living with HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C.
But there were problems, too, at least on the financial side. Higley, who is now board president, recalls that fundraising had dwindled, as had the organization’s un- restricted funds. The board was dedicated, but small. So board members set about to change the situation and over the past few years have added board members to represent the community the Wright House serves, dramatically increasing the organization’s involvement and outreach in the community.
In doing so, they caught the eye of one organization in particular, the International Special Events Society’s Austin chapter. ISES holds its CulinART event each year to showcase Austin events professionals’ talents in an evening of gourmet food, entertainment and art, while raising money for local nonprofits. For the past four years, the Wright House has been ISES’s partner, and CulinART has become the main fundraiser for the organization.
“We don’t have that expertise of how to throw a fabulous party,” said Leah Graham, the executive director of Wright House. “We’re probably throwing a more than-$150,000 party with CulinART, but it’s not costing that because of donations.”
Because ISES has a presence in other cities, the event is entered for awards and recognition and is replicated in other cities—the Wright House is working with ISES to put a similar event together in Palm Beach, as well. For ISES participants, it’s a way for everyone involved in an event, from sound production to floral arrangements, to showcase their best stuff. And, Graham said, that means a win-win for both groups.
“We’re introduced to people who might not know the Wright House through ISES, the Wright House is intro- duced to events professionals, and we’ve been able to bring people together,” Graham said.
The Wright House also strives to be an active partner, bringing in sponsorships, donations and guests, Graham added.
The Wright House, which is a 501(c)3 nonprofit, aims to help people who are living with or at risk for chronic illnesses to make healthier lifestyle choices and help them use complementary and holistic health therapies to delay illness. Its support, education and resources for those living with HIV and hepatitis C are low-cost or free.
The organization’s outreach and collaboration with groups from ISES to other AIDS services providers in Central Texas has earned it recognition from the Centers for Disease Control. Higley recalled a visit from CDC of- ficials a few years ago, when they were renewing a grant to the Wright House.
“They were looking for organizations to start working together,” Higley said. “As HIV becomes less of a death sentence and more of a long-term illness, resources have to be reallocated. We needed to start to work together more and more.”
For Kevin Molesworth, owner of Brass Tack Events, which is organizing this year’s CulinART, that mission is inspiration to do his best work.
“I remember hearing a story about a man who had AIDS and had committed suicide,” Molesworth said. “I always thought if someone had just reached out to him, he might still be here. This is critical, this is life and death, and without these services the Wright House provides, that might happen to more people. This isn’t just a wed- ding or a baby shower.”
This is the first year Brass Tack Events has headed up CulinART, and Molesworth said he wanted to take the whole event up a notch. It’s always been known for fine art and fine food, but why stop there, he reasoned?
“Why don’t we elevate every aspect of the event to fine art?” he said. “Live music, floral work, décor—let’s knock it out of the park.”
The result, for the roughly 300 guests who attended the event at Shoal Crossing on February 23, was a five- course dinner prepared by five different executive chefs, the preparation of which was shown to guests on a screen. The evening also included silent and live auctions, music and art—all under the theme “All We Need is Love.”
“What drives charity?” Molesworth said of the idea behind the theme. “It’s more than money, it’s love.”