Red Sox Hall of Famer Dwight Evans has witnessed phenomenal success, but he’s also seen the trauma that can be inflicted by bullying and discrimination.
During Thursday night’s Cromwell Center for Disabilities Awareness Dinner and Dance, Evans addressed the crowd of more than 230 guests at the Marriott Sable Oaks in South Portland and told us about his two adult sons who live with neurofibromatosis, a genetic disorder that causes tumors of the nerves. He talked about the cruel words and actions directed at his sons by both children and adults who lack sensitivity and compassion for people with differences.
But he also shared a story that caused all our hearts to swell.
He told us of the day his son Tim had a surgery (he’s now had 40) to remove one of the tumors and had just awoken in the post-op room. Because the Red Sox had a game that evening, Evans needed to leave for the ball field.
“I kissed him on the forehead,” Evans told us. “He said, ‘Dad, can you do me a favor? Can you hit a home run tonight?’ “
Evans agreed that he would, but when he turned to leave the hospital room his son asked for another favor: “Can you hit me two home runs tonight?”
Evans said he would try, but didn’t make any promises.
“It didn’t dawn on me until I hit that second home run that someone very special was looking over that situation,” Evans told us.
That same special someone was likely smiling upon the fundraiser, since the party raised an estimated $70,000 to support the nonprofit’s efforts to change attitudes about people who live with disabilities.
Moving talks like the one Evans delivered are a hallmark of this annual dinner.
“I came to this event last year and I was completely inspired,” Terry Brown told me. Brown worked as a speechwriter for Maine businessman Les Otten during his recent gubernatorial bid and has since joined the organization’s board and even chaired this year’s event committee.
“The people in this organization are all wonderful people,” Brown told me. “They’re all so giving of their time and money.”
The organization, which was founded in 2003 by Otten and Portland attorney Jamie Kaplan, runs interactive disability awareness programs for grades three through five.
“We’re the program to call for training and education to prevent bullying,” Executive Director Juliana L’Heureux told me. “I’m already getting calls for fall, and we’re also getting calls from out of state schools.”
The organization has provided training in 165 schools during the past three years.
“The Cromwell Center relies on grants for our school programs, and all our state and federal grants have been cut,” L’Heureux told me. “We’re going to be fine for next year. But this fundraiser is going to have to be even more important.”
When I met Cromwell instructor Hilda Wiley during the silent auction, she told me about what she sees when working in the classroom with students.
“It gives kids a sense that disabilities are common and differences are good,” Wiley told me. “They come away thinking, ‘I’m not alone.’ Starting the dialogue about disabilities can help potential bullies” realize they know many people with disabilities.
Susan Evans, Dwight Evans’ wife, told me how impressed she is by the Cromwell Center’s programs after she and her husband witnessed a class in action at the Portland YMCA.
“We went into the classroom and saw how the kids were interacting and the way they were thinking about these things,” Susan Evans told me. “What the Cromwell Center does is so important. I wish more companies and schools would incorporate this into their programs. There are so many people who’ve been hurt by ignorance.”
Saco-based psychologist Francoise Paradis told me about her work with children who’ve been bullied.
“They have a lot of anxiety and it’s hard for them to trust,” Paradis told me. “When kids are educated in a way that builds empathy they’re less likely to become bullies.”
I sat next to Paradis during dinner, and we had the pleasure of sharing a table with Rep. Terry Morrison, who is the sponsor of an anti-bullying bill, Edie Smith and Ben Tucker, both with Maine Directions, Mary Donahue, Richard L’Heureux and Juliana L’Heureux.
Following Evans’ moving speech, Otten and WCSH-6 sports anchor Lee Goldberg took to the stage to conduct a live auction. Otten proved to be a natural auctioneer, reminding the crowd “this is a benefit auction, not a tag sale.” People took those instructions seriously, as this portion of the festivities raised more than $10,000.
The evening wrapped up with a funk-filled performance by Motor Booty Affair.
As I departed into the cool night air, I kept hearing Dwight Evans’ prediction that “this generation is going to be better and the next one even better than that.”
By changing attitudes, the Cromwell Center will play a key role in making this prediction a reality.
Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at:
Follow her on Twitter at: