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The Sickle Cell Foundation of Central Alabama's 12th Annual Gala with Celebrity Host Rickey Smiley

The Sickle Cell Foundation of Central Alabama's 12th Annual Gala with Celebrity Host Rickey Smiley

The Sickle Cell Foundation of Central Alabama proudly presented their annual sickle cell gala on Saturday, Feb. 11th, at the downtown Sheraton Hotel. “Showtime— Motown Style” was this years’ theme and was heavily embellished throughout. With vinyl records in lieu of placemats, and disco balls as centerpieces, Double-Edged Event's did not miss a single décor detail. Danielle Baskin and Cathy Cumbie are the visionaries who brought the Motown Theme to life, with dangling record covers, life-size cut outs and framed phots of Motown’s greatest acts, that thet so intricately placed along the hall leading to grand ballroom. You may also recognize their talents and tastes at other major Birmingham functions, like the Southern Women's Show. ‘Absolute Vodka’ sponsored the cocktail mingling hour, and provided a Vegas-like LED kiosk as the bar cart.

“Motown is big for most of us” Dana Clark 'Lady Woo' Woodruff, the show's producer said. “The greatest love songs, crossover ballads, and the biggest music influencers are Motown.  I mean, always thinking local, Birmingham had ties to the Temptations through Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams. Because of that, some of the production ideas were a no brainer.”  

The grandeur continues. The ballroom was striking, and exquisitely lit creating a tapestry-like effect. When the lights dropped, the room appeared to be draped in gorgeous fabrics. The music began, and the show narrator took hold of your ears—

Sicke Cell Gala 26.jpg

“Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Now imagine a life where no sickle cell disease exists. Pain and crisis are no more, and Sickle Cell Disease has ended for all sufferers. No more unexpected hospital stays that last for days and days, and even months. No more lives being cut short. The Sickle Cell Disease must be stopped, and we have to fight together to eliminate this disease. So stand with us. Fight with us, in the battle against Sickle cell”, Lady Woo said.

In memory of Birmingham’s fallen sickle cell victims’, a list of names were read aloud as ‘The Jackson Five’s’ ‘I’ll be there’ purred softly from the strings and horns of the all black classic orchestra, and the backup singing quartette. Popular local singer and instrumentalist Ashley Sankey was part of the group.  

Mickey Ferguson and Jeh Jeh Pruitt of WBRC’s FOX 6 News were the starter emcee’s of the night, and welcomed the gala attendees with a dance performance to James Brown’s ‘Get on Up’. The crowd burst into a fit of laughter as they watched the uncoordinated James Brown dance impression of two of Birmingham’s favorite news anchors.  

Prayer was led by Sickle Cell Gala Board Member Johnny Harris, and greetings from Birmingham City Mayor, William Bell were given, followed by words from the Sickle Cell Foundation’s national CEO, Ms. Sonja Banks of Baltimore, MD, Board President Charles E. Lawson of Birmingham, AL, and a message from gala Co-Chairs, Ms. Monica Whiting, and Mr. Jason Eppenger (of Birmingham).

Porsha Williams of Atlanta housewives and Birmingham Mayor William Bell. 

Porsha Williams of Atlanta housewives and Birmingham Mayor William Bell. 

Gala  Co-chairs Monica Whiting and Jason Eppenger

Gala  Co-chairs Monica Whiting and Jason Eppenger

From the podium, Monica Whiting said, “I have a cousin out of Houston who couldn’t make it tonight because she is currently in crisis. She is my inspiration, and she why I’m here. She is someone I have watched feel immeasurable pain, and she is the reason I have been so passionate about this cause”.

Whiting said she’s had the privilege of seeing the inner workings of this organization and how the Sickle Cell Foundation of Central Alabama utilizes the monies they raise. The SCF has been able to provide patient and sustenance services to patients all over Central Alabama.

She continues-

“Someone recognized my passion and asked me if I weren’t gala co-chair, would I still dedicate my time to this organization and this event. And the answer is unequivocally, yes. I would still donate my time, my money and I would still donate my resources because it [the gala and foundation] is such a worthy cause.”

Finally, the moment everyone had been heavily anticipating arrived, when celebrity guest and Co-host Rickey Smiley came out in true “Smiley Fashion”, running, clowning and joking. He stepped up to the mic and asked— “Can somebody please bring me the obituary, I mean, program, so I can know what to say next?” Of course, the crowd flared in excitement as funny-man-Smiley began to do what he does best: cause belly-aching laughter. 

Rickey Smiley gifted with the Omega Psi Phi Blazer of Achievement

Rickey Smiley gifted with the Omega Psi Phi Blazer of Achievement

Smiley was also gifted an honorary Omega Psi Phi Blazer of Achievement by board members Lawson and Harris, which he referred to as a “Birmingham Hall of Fame” jacket. Smiley said, “First of all, I want to say thank you. And that (he pauses and takes a good look at the jacket), I always wanted one of these. I don’t know where I’m gon’ wear it, but I’m gon’ wear it. I may go on and wear it to church tomorrow with some Jeans and some gold boots.” 

As a Birmingham native, Rickey Smiley has personal ties to people all over the city, and was eager to take that to the stage.

“Rickey’s picking on my Dad throughout the show was not scripted at all, but that's who he is to my family and to Birmingham and the families that he has been a part of forever” Lady Woo said. “He was able to call names of guests throughout the building which definitely gave the show a different flavor. It was intentional for production value but definitely original. The crowd loved every minute of it!”

There’s no Motown without show-time, and there’s no sickle cell gala without Apollo Style performances. This year’s show-time finalist was Tavares Hartsfield, whose 2016 Walmart Madea impersonation went viral on social media.

Lawson State Community College dance troop “Golden Essence” served 70’s flavor with their sequined costumes, afro wigs and Go-Go boots; performing dance numbers on the audience floor throughout the show.

Jason Eppenger and me

Jason Eppenger and me

Jason Eppenger, 12 year board member and this year’s gala fundraising co-chair said, “This is a cause that is very close to my heart. My family is not affected by it, but I have several friends that are. The journey my friends have been through in their lives is what made me get involved [with the foundation].”

When a sickle cell patient is in crisis, all you can do is wait it out. It’s all a “waiting-game” that can result in extended hospital stays. Eppenger said ”seeing someone you love and care for in such a heavy state of pain, and there’s nothing you can do about it is a very helpless feeling.”

Sadie McElroy, board secretary, has served for many years. She has an extensive background in medical healthcare, and a strong passion for people affected with the disease. “Sickle Cell Anemia is a chronic hereditary disease that can be debilitating, and the pain is so excruciating that a strong narcotic is needed to ease the pain” she said. “It’s a chronic disease, so it will be active their entire lives and they’ll go in and out of crisis.”   

What is the source of the pain, and why is it so excruciating?

McElroy said “Blood carries oxygen, and when you have sickle cell disease your blood cells are shaped like an S. And blood vessels are shaped like tubes, right? The pain comes from the S shaped blood cells trying to make it through a straight tube. This is what creates unimaginable pain all over the body.”

Board member Sadie McElroy, Rickey Smiley and Sandra Pratt

Board member Sadie McElroy, Rickey Smiley and Sandra Pratt

Sharon B. Lewis is the Executive Director of Central Alabama’s sickle cell foundation, and she said that extensive organ damage can also occur from when a patient is in crisis. “Organ damage may occur as the abnormal sickle shaped blood cells prevent proper distribution of oxygen throughout the body. This is an examples of problems and complications associated with the sickle cell disease, for both children and adults.”

Johnny Harris has two sons with Sickle Cell Anemia. ”Both of my sons (JJ, 23 and Joshua, 17) have the disease and it’s been a challenge. The hospitalizations and their inability to participate in some of the activities that they have wanted to do over the years, but they have persevered. They’ve always tried to go forward, even if they end up having to sit down. My son Joshua is a drum major at Talladega High, and he’s been at it for a good 3 years. They’re doing well because they have a good family and community support. `

The sickle cell foundation has been good to Mr. Harris and his family over the years.

“They supported us through counseling, they’ve come to the community and lead support groups. And they’ve helped us arrange the Sickle Cell Walk of East Alabama for years. Talladega County has a very high census for sickle cell patients in the area. So we started having a walk-a-thon in East Alabama about 8 years ago, and the foundation does an excellent job of helping us market and organize our walk.”  

Lady Woo, her mother Angeline Clark Woodruff (caseworker and board member of the Central Alabama chapter) both have the carrier gene, which is referred to as the sickle cell trait “My maternal grandfather, mother her brother, and now my daughter all carry the trait” she said. “Understanding that the gene that I carry [if] matched with another carrier, can create the disease makes me feel obligated to fight for all of us and those who will come after.”  Angeline enjoys her work at the Foundation where she advocates and serves all clients with dignity. 

Lewis said “when parents both have Sickle Cell trait there is a one in 4 chance of having a child with Sickle Cell Disease with each pregnancy.”    

“This is a disease that effects the black race and people of Mediterranean descent” McElroy said. “All people with black blood are the one’s affected by this disease, which is why we as the black race need to come together to fight for a cure. It mainly affects us.”

Average life expectancy for a sickle cell patient is 42 years for men, and 48 years for women.

There is no universal cure for sickle cell disease nor any one medicine that offers universal relief.  However, there are scientists working to improve care while we all are anxiously waiting for a universal cure”, said Lewis. “Funds raised from tonight’s Gala will be used to help families. For example, Vision and dental care, which may not otherwise available to them, is provided. We purchase medications and provide transportation to doctor visits…. Daily subsistence needs can also be provided.

Lewis concludes—

“The mission of the Foundation is to advocate for access to appropriate medical services and to educate affected families so they better understand the disease and to advocate for their needs. The Central Alabama Sickle Cell Foundation serves Jefferson and 12 other Central and Eastern Counties. The Foundation offers education and testing to the public and counseling and support services. Our most recent donation was for one million dollars to Kirklin Clinic at the University of Alabama Birmingham, to support the further development of a comprehensive Sickle Cell Clinic for adults with Sickle Cell Disease.

My biggest hope for the Sickle Cell Foundation of Central Alabama is that we make people aware of the fact that work is not just done in February, through the gala to fight this disease.  We fight everyday through multiple efforts and services.  The staff and researchers put in countless hours and all of their experience with the disease.  They know what their clients need and deserve.  I would love for the universal cure to be found right here in the Magic City.

Rickey Smiley stayed to mingle and take photos with the gala guests at the end of the show and promised to be back next year, free of charge, with a national music act.  

All proceeds from the gala went to the Sickle Cell Foundation of Central Alabama. To support the foundation by purchasing a car tag, please visit:

The 19th Annual Sickle Cell Walk will be held in Linn Park, 710 - 20th Street North, Birmingham, AL 35203 on Saturday, May 6th, from 8:00 am – 12 noon. Contact the Sickle Cell Foundation at 205.780.2355| |

Photo Cred: All photos by freelance photographer Reginald Allen.

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