Hope for a multiple sclerosis cure mixed with the salty summer breezes during Thursday night’s MS Harborfest Benefit Auction at Ocean Gateway in Portland. The party marked the kickoff of the weekend-long nautical festivities, which serve as the biggest fundraiser of the year for the Maine chapter of the MS Society.
If past years are any indication, over the course of the weekend the parties, regattas and races will raise more than $100,000, with 85 percent of every dollar going to support and advocate for people with MS.
The party in the gorgeous glass-walled space with wraparound views of the harbor featured more than 100 auction items, heavy hors d’oeuvres from USM Catering and plentiful drinks, including the signature Harbor Breeze cocktail composed of blueberry vodka, lemonade and Cointreau.
“Here in Maine there are 3,000 individuals who’ve been diagnosed with MS that we’re aware of,” Arlyn White, the CEO of the Greater New England chapter of the MS Society, told me.
She went on to explain that Maine, like most northern areas, has a high rate of MS, a chronic disease of the central nervous system. Women and people of northern European ancestry are most likely to be diagnosed with MS. The disease commonly strikes adults, but in recent years more children have been diagnosed with MS.
White explained there is much promising research afoot, which has the potential to lead to new treatments and possibly a cure. Two interesting avenues of research include stem cell investigations and the possible link between Vitamin D and MS.
“The chapter is here to improve the quality of life for individuals and family members who are struggling with the disease,” White said.
The Maine chapter recently combined with the New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts chapters.
“We’re delighted we’ve joined forces with everyone in northern New England,” said Mary Jalbert, the former board chairwoman of the Maine chapter. “You add it all together and we have so much expertise.”
One of the organization’s experts is Janet Dunn of Alfred, who serves as an MS ambassador and often speaks to groups about the daily realities of living with the disease. Looking quite elegant perched on her black scooter, Dunn gave an inspiring speech, speaking about her constant struggle with pain and her ability to continue working at Goodall Hospital.
“I’ve had a bit of a miracle,” she told the crowd. “I’m not on any medication.”
When I chatted with her earlier in the evening, she expressed particular concern for the children being diagnosed with MS.
“That makes the fight to cure MS more necessary,” she said.
Dunn then added, “If you have MS, it’s not hopeless. I’m convinced a cure is coming in my lifetime.”
WMTW TV anchor Shannon Moss did a lovely job serving as the party’s master of ceremonies. She told us her family has been touched by MS, so it’s a cause near and dear to her heart. Moss read a proclamation from Portland Mayor Nicholas Mavodones naming the entire weekend in honor of the event.
“Most events only get a day,” Moss noted.
Bangor Savings Bank and Verrill Dana serve as lead sponsors of MS Harborfest, and many representatives from the two organizations were at the party. They included John Edwards and Gregg Piasio of Bangor Savings, and Gretchen Johnson, Malinda Lawrence, Tim Shannon, Lisa Skerlick and Emma Lishness of Verrill Dana.
Other notable folks at the party included Abby Cutler, who is the daughter of independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler and is in her second year of medical school in Chicago; and Ellie Baker, who is one of the founders of Baker Newman Noyes and has had two close family members diagnosed with MS.
Baker is married to Tom Saturley, who is the president of Tranzon Auction Properties and handled the party’s live auction with his wonderful mix of enthusiasm and humor.
“Tom is fun to watch,” Johnson of Verrill Dana told me. “He generates a lot of interest in the auction.”
my count, he generated more than $5,000 worth of interest in the live auction items, which included a night at the Red Sox in box seats and a Tag Heuer watch from Springer’s Jewelers.
He even paused his auctioneer’s chant to say a few heartfelt words.
“being here tonight with your dollars and most importantly with your support, you make a terrible thing a little better,” Saturley said before bringing down the gavel at $1,000 for the last auction item.
As White pointed out, “This event couldn’t happen without the grass-roots volunteers.”
This goes for all the weekend’s events, which require almost 300 volunteers to make happen. These volunteers allow the organization to devote more funds to support patients and finance research. With any luck, these research efforts will eventually lead to a cure.
As Jalbert told me, “We want to put ourselves out of business. That’s our goal.”
Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at: [email protected]