Magical Dallas gala transports guests to exotic land of Arabian Nights

This article originally appeared in Culture Map on March 29, 2019.

About 500 guests took a magic carpet ride to an exotic land to support Equest's vital mission of hope and healing at the organization's 2019 Arabian Nights-themed gala.

On March 23, Sixty Five Hundred was transformed into a land of mysticism and wonder — a perfect backdrop for the night that co-chairs Annie and Teal Griffeth and honorary co-chairs Cindy Thomas and Bert Headden had in store.

As guests arrived to the sold-out event, they were greeted under Arabian-inspired archways by models in sparkly outfits who looked like they'd stepped off the set of Aladdin. Further down the Persian rug-carpeted pathway, the cocktail reception didn't take long to start buzzing.

DJ Lucy Wrubel set the beats as guests sipped the signature Wish Granter cocktail, presented by Reyka Vodka, and got a glimpse into the future from tarot card readers. Equest Mini Ambassadors Cisco and Dare, two miniature horses under 36 inches tall, dressed in their finest Arabian-inspired costumes posed for portraits with guests at the step-and-repeat.

Patrons snaked through tables and tables of fabulous silent auction items — from original artwork and portraiture to wine, trips, and sports memorabilia (Cowboys fans got one last shot at a Cole Beasley-signed blue-and-silver helmet).

When doors opened to dinner, attendees got a show on the way to their tables, courtesy of talented Arthur Murray Dance Center dancers. Luxurious and fragrant floral arrangements — some incorporating colorful citrus in their design — dazzled on each candlelit table.

Servers made fast work of presenting dinner and filling wine glasses. The three-course meal by Food Glorious Food Catering included spring greens salad and chicken Marsala with garlic-olive oil broccoli rabe and mascarpone polenta cake. An assortment of mini desserts — Irish whiskey cakes, banana pudding, triple berry pot d'creme, and more — were pre-set at each place.

After the Presentation of Colors, Pledge of Alliance, and invocation by the Rev. Chris Girata of Saint Michael and All Angels Church, Equest CEO Lili Kellogg handed the stage over to emcee Sonia Azad, health and wellness reporter at WFAA Channel 8, who guided the night's program and further stressed the organization's mission.

Founded in 1981, Equest provides equine assisted learning, therapies, and counseling to children and adults with physical, cognitive, sensory, coping and learning disabilities, and veterans with adjustment challenges. With the help of 30 therapy horses, eight instructors, four therapists, two counselors, and 400 volunteers, more than 2,000 clients each year receive physical and occupational therapy, equine-facilitated counseling and learning, and more.

The gala mood turned celebratory when the inaugural Citation Award (named after the famous thoroughbred horse by the same name) was presented to Connie and Denny Carreker for their support of Equest through the years.  Kellogg explained that the gala was named Arabian Nights to honor the Carrekers, who previously raised Arabian horses.

Then Equest co-founder Susan Schwartz presented the Founder’s Award — Equest’s highest honor — to Louise Griffeth, who launched the Equest Women’s Auxiliary 33 years ago. “I grew up watching you volunteer and help Equest, and through your inspiration, I hope that one day I can achieve the things you have done,” her son Teal said sweetly upon presenting her the award.

Then it was time for guests to see and experience the Equest's work in action. Oscar Seung, director of music and fine arts at CSLDallas, sang a stunning rendition of "You Raise Me Up" while a powerful video showcased Equest’s therapy horses, clients, and staff. The presentation concluded with six Equest clients holding signs that read: "You Raise Us Up Thank You."

Azad introduced and interviewed each client on stage, giving them a chance to tell their stories of hurt, healing, and hope. One inspirational woman turned to Equest's therapies as a veteran now dealing with PTSD and a cancer diagnosis. Another man, whose hand was visibly shaking on stage, said that his tremors stop when he gets on a horse.

After the emotional and uplifting presentation, guests got the chance to give generously by raising their auction paddies at various levels — from $10,000 to $100. Hands flew up around the room, and the "live give" initiative earned nearly $100,000 alone.

Generous giving continued as guests bid on stellar live auction items including trips to Iceland, New York City, the Bahamas, and Florence, Italy — all of which sold for several thousand dollars.

The magical evening didn't stop there. The Taylor Pace Orchestra quickly filled the dance floor, playing popular covers from "Celebration" to "Treasure" — both, appropriate words to sum up the night.

Spotted in the crowd, having a great time and supporting the cause were Carolyn Tanner, Alvin Wong, Natalie Westbrook, Brent Carreker, Michelle Carreker, Connie Carreker, John Carreker, Denny Carreker, Eric Smith, Faith Smith, Connor Hustava, Sarah Blagden, Karla Baumgartner, Jessica Geisbauer, Susie Siller, Marya Makowski, Key Coker, Katherine Coker, Lizza Bowen, Michael Bowen, Jocelyn White, Casey Gutierrez, Maggie Kipp, Jack Pratt, Mallory Plummer, Kimberly Cadarette, Taylor Wolf, Mark Knowles, Melinda Knowles, Rachel Newburn, Josh Newburn, Sean Henchey, Shannon Brookshire, Heather Davis, and many more.

CJ Bankhead