Everyone has promise: PoP Gala 2014

Olivia Wittels
Senior Marketing Coordinator
October 24, 2014

“From a Rwandan Dump to the Halls of Harvard.”

This was the headline of an article featured on the front page of the October 23, 2014 issue of the New York Times. Published just a few hours after the most successful gala in Pencils of Promise history, the article – which describes how Justus Uwayesu, a Rwandan orphan formerly living in a garbage dump, was able to enroll in Harvard this past fall – epitomizes everything that PoP represents in the countries we currently work in, Laos, Guatemala and Ghana. It would be an understatement to say that Uwayesu embodies the calling card of this organization: that everyone, no matter where you are born, has promise.

The fourth annual PoP gala celebrated the generosity and dedication of three of PoP’s most vocal and vital supporters, actress and activist Sophia Bush, CEO of VaynerMedia, Gary Vaynerchuk, and CMO of SB Projects, Brad Haugen. Hosted by PoP founder Adam Braun, the night featured a myriad of inspiring speeches – like that of PoP’s Ghana country director Freeman Gobah, who invited every guest to his home country to see the impact of their donations firsthand – and videos, including the debut of PoP’s new “Everyone Has Promise” video.

Vaynerchuk stressed that as an immigrant to the United States, it was pure circumstance and fortune that allowed him to rise to a place in life that he deemed “ridiculously lucky.” He emphasized that everyone in the room was in a position to make a difference, no matter how big or small, before handing off the microphone to auctioneer CK Swett, who jokingly encouraged attendees to finish their drinks and raise their extra large pencils high in the air for the live auction.

The first item to be auctioned off, a wine tasting with Vaynerchuk, made it clear that guests had indeed heeded Adam’s request in his opening speech. Just as an education can change the way in which a child views his or her future, Braun called upon gala attendees to alter their own perceptions of themselves – whatever their occupation, he encouraged everyone to become a philanthropist for the night. The wine tasting prize was ultimately split between three bidders for $30,000 each, setting the tone for the remainder of the auction, which included private lessons with a Dancing With the Stars professional, a Shania Twain VIP experience, an Elton John VIP experience, and an opportunity to meet Sophia Bush.

The final item (a surprise!) featured a spinning lesson from world-renown DJ Martin Garrix. The item was even more special because Garrix was actually a PoP gala attendee. During the bidding process, he spontaneously added to his original prize, offering another spinning lesson and VIP access at the exclusive nightclub Hakkasan in Las Vegas. Needless to say, Garrix’s smiling presence on stage helped make this one of the most popular items of the auction.

After all of the prize items were auctioned off, CK Swett led the crowd into the Fund-a-Need portion of the night, where guests were encouraged to donate at any level. Two individual $100,000 donations kicked off the fundraising, which in about ten minutes raised an additional half million dollars for PoP. This was an astonishing and incredibly exciting feat, and a true testament to the generosity of the 750 guests who filled the tables at Ciprani Wall Street.

In a fitting introduction to Brad’s closing speech, Adam remembered that five years ago he and Haugen had attended a PoP event at the same venue, but under very different circumstances. Half a decade ago, they were placed in a library off to the side of the building, and the event was attended by a grand total of nine PoP supporters. But that same night, Adam recalled, he and Brad had looked out at the enormous main hall together, and said that one day they were going to fill it – a dream that ultimately came to fruition at the 2014 gala.

Brad explained how merely hearing about Adam’s first build five years ago reignited his own passion for giving back, which propelled him to seek out ways to become involved with PoP. In his speech, Haugen read aloud his first email to Adam, where he requested to help build a school in any way possible. Now the chairman of the Board of Directors of an organization that has built over 250 schools, the standing ovation that Haugen received at the end of his speech was only fitting for someone who is endlessly driven towards bringing innovative and life-altering education to children all across the world.

At the PoP gala just one year ago, we honored Malala Yousafzai, who was recently named a 2014 Nobel Peace Prize winner. Shot in the head for being an educational activist, Malala’s incredible life reveals that if given a chance, anyone is capable of receiving one of the most premiere prizes in the entire world. While education unquestionably provides the groundwork for transformative stories like that of Malala’s, or that of Justus Uwayesu’s, it is also transformative on a smaller – but equally effective and as important – scale.

Take Nuth, for example. At this year’s gala, Adam shared recent pictures of Nuth and referred to video he took of her years ago in which he professed that she would be PoP’s first student. Today, Nuth is in fourth grade and wants to be a doctor or a nurse, a career that would have been all but impossible, and also inconceivable for a four-year-old child in rural Laos who had never set foot in a school. Nuth is only one of the 30,000 children PoP has impacted thus far, just one representative of the fact that education is perhaps the most powerful tool to alter the course of a child’s life.

On October 22nd, 750 members of the PoP family gathered for a night of impact. Together, we raised over two million dollars to bring education to our students in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Everyone has promise, and as last night’s gala demonstrated, there are hundreds of people who believe that not to be overzealous jargon, but legitimate truth. PoP won’t stop until that conviction becomes reality, for we are committed to the principle that education is an inherent, inalienable and achievable right, for every one, everywhere.