After a four-month delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic, friends and supporters of United Way of Denton County gathered in socially distanced fashion at the grand ballroom at the Embassy Suites by Hilton Denton Convention Center for the annual UNITED Tribute Gala on May 8.
The sold-out celebration recognized several organizations and individuals for their dedication to Denton County during the difficult year of 2020, and two community dancers were crowned Champions of “Dancing with Our Stars.” Despite a smaller than typical crowd of approximately 500 and a new feature of virtual tickets (over 100 sold), the typical passion and emotion of the event endured as poignant award designations shared the spotlight with energetic dancing by a cast of 20 community volunteer dancers, many of them husband and wife couples, according to a UWDC news release.
Emotions ran high with bookend standing ovations for former Denton mayor Chris Watts and Denton County Judge Andy Eads, who were both honored as the 2020 Dr. Bettye Myers Humanitarian Awardees for their work fighting and preventing homelessness in Denton County.
“I wanted to help people because as a little kid, we needed help,” Watts said during his acceptance speech which also touched on his battle as one of COVID-19’s “long-haulers.”
Eads spoke of the challenges and opportunities presented by 2020 after accepting his award.
“In 2020-21, we all lived united,” he said. “We learned that important lesson.”
Other awardees of the night included: DATCU Credit Union – Community Spirit Award, QuikTrip – LIVE UNITED Award; Denton County – Creating Lasting Change Award, Denton ISD – Better Tomorrow; Allison Engineering – Trailblazer Award, United Parcel Service – Advancing the Common Good Award, and finally, Peterbilt – Chairman’s Choice Award.
United Way also spoke of its financial challenges. Overall fundraising in 2020 decreased 25-40% for Denton County nonprofits, while need from the community increased by over 300%.
“We need your help,” said United Way of Denton County President & CEO Gary Henderson. “What’s been challenging for us during COVID is knowing we were only able to fund about 30% of the requests made from our partner agencies. So, we need more companies to join our team to support our community.”
The featured entertainment of the “Fly Me To the Moon” themed evening was the crowd-favorite “Dancing with Our Stars” showcasing ten couples from across Denton County who volunteered countless hours since October to learn a group and solo dance under the direction of Gladys Keeton, Professor Emeritus of Dance at Texas Woman’s University. Earning the Judges’ Choice Award for technical scores were Ben and Natalie Clark. Votes from the audience – both at home and in the ballroom – crowned Carter Higgins and Rachel Collins representing Special Abilities of North Texas as Champions and winners of the coveted Mirror Ball Trophies.
Despite the pandemic-reduced capacity, the 9th annual UNITED Tribute generated nearly $160,000 for United Way of Denton County.