Down on Their Luck to Be VIPs at Obama Ball

Based on the charitable efforts of a Virginia businessman, it looks like an unexpected group will have some of the hottest tickets in town when President-elect Barack Obama is inaugurated Jan. 20.

"We're hoping those who had no expectations of being a part of this to have one of the best seats, one of the best views of Washington," said Earl Stafford, 60, founder of a technology company in Centreville, Va.

Despite intense demand surrounding the inauguration, Stafford managed to book 300 rooms for three nights at the JW Marriott Hotel on Pennsylvania Ave. as part of a $1 million "build your own ball" package the hotel recently advertised.

He did it in hopes of bringing less-fortunate groups into the democratic process, "those who are marginalized, those who are terminally ill, our wounded veterans and because we don't want to exclude our young people, we'll also have a 300-person youth ball," he said.

At least a third of Stafford's guests will be from underprivileged communities -- wounded soldiers, the homeless, victims of domestic violence, and Hurricane Katrina victims. The rest will be people from foundations, volunteers and charitable organizations that Stafford is hoping to encourage for their philanthropic work.

The hotel's $1 million package also comes with $200,000 worth of food and exclusive use of the hotel's 12th floor balcony with great views of the inaugural parade.

Despite the hefty price tag, many organizations were eager to book the deal.

"I've never had to run anywhere with $1 million," Stafford said, laughing.

Inaugurations are times for parades and parties to salute a new president. With 10 or 12 inaugural balls this year, the lavish events to celebrate Obama's arrival are in high demand.

By most estimates, the inauguration of the 44th president will be the biggest in history. District officials are preparing for a crowd of up to 4 million people -- only a fraction of whom will be able to attend the events.

But Stafford's guests will get the VIP treatment.

On top of the $1 million purchase, Stafford has set aside another $600,000 for two more inaugural balls at the hotel and is even ready to provide tuxedos and ball gowns for his guests.

"We believe that it is important for us to include those who are less fortunate, because, like Barack Obama, we, too, believe in the American dream," Stafford said.

Bringing Marginalized to D.C. Center

Stafford said the event has evolved beyond his "wildest dreams."

"When organizations and companies hear about our attempt to do good, they're asking, 'How can we do good, be part of this, make dreams come true for the underprivileged?'" he said.

His wife, Amanda, added, "We're hoping that our feeble effort to do good in America would be contagious and that other people and other organizations would look and say, 'Well, you know, things might be a little tough for us, but we can still give.'"

But some wonder why anyone would give so much to strangers.

Stafford, the son of a Baptist minister, said, "Someone once said if the Lord be your partner, make your plans large."

"When you seek to bless others, then you're blessed," Stafford added.

He said he is encouraging other groups to focus on the people he is inviting -- not his charitable gesture.

Stafford's wife said that knowing they've made a difference in the lives of others is reward enough.

"To see the look in someone's eyes who never dreamed that they could have this opportunity -- just looking to see someone happy and to know that we've made a difference in someone's life," she said. "I will be just looking for those happy faces."

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