Emily Miller made a beeline for a rack of gowns, grabbing a fuschia dress and a stole for an inaugural ball Tuesday. Combing through the display tables, she added silver pumps, a beaded choker and earrings. Then, she enjoyed a manicure as live jazz played in the background.
Many inaugural celebrants shelled out hundreds — if not thousands — of dollars to attend one of the dozens of balls across the nation's capital. But Miller, who until four months ago had been homeless, will pay nothing. The opportunity comes courtesy of Virginia businessman Earl W. Stafford and his nonprofit foundation, which together paid more than $1.6 million so people who otherwise might have been excluded from the festivities would get a chance to celebrate.
On Sunday, Miller and others were sifting through donated formal wear, trying to find the best fit before Tuesday's balls.
"This is something I just, I just would never have imagined would have happened," said Miller, who joined six other women from a homeless-services group at the JW Marriott, a luxury hotel on Pennsylvania Ave. near the White House. "I've come a long way."
With the help of nonprofits and social service groups nationwide, Stafford has invited Miller and about 700 others feeling the sting of struggle — the homeless, unemployed people, wounded war veterans and others — to participate in his People's Inaugural Project.
Stafford and his nonprofit, The Stafford Foundation, have raised money for its People's Inaugural Ball, which Miller will attend, a Youth Ball and other events. They've also paid for hundreds of guest rooms, food and access to a heated, tented balcony overlooking President-elect Barack Obama's parade route.
Stafford, former CEO of the Centreville, Va.-based tech firm Universal Systems and Technology Inc., said those guests will mingle with people who have been more fortunate — a deliberate effort to bring different lives together. Altogether, about 2,000 people will attend the foundation's festivities.
"What I hope happens is that barriers and walls will be broken down — that there'll be less concentration on that which divides us and more concentration on that which we have in common," said Stafford, 60, who said he was motivated by his Christian faith to host the events. "We want to inspire people to become their brother's keeper, to help do a little bit for others."
'I busted out crying'
The foundation plans to do follow-up, too, he said. "If we're really sincere with that, we will not send these people home in the same condition that they arrived," he said.
Among the invitees is 16-year-old Austin Henderson, whose trip to Washington marked his first time outside of Englewood, Ill., on the southwest side of Chicago. Henderson's grandmother has been raising him and his six siblings after their mother died nearly two decades ago. Austin and about two dozen other students from Urban Prep Charter Academy for Young Men arrived Sunday. They will watch the parade and attend the Youth Ball.
Henderson said he was overwhelmed when he learned that he was going to the nation's capital for Obama's inauguration.
"Once everybody left the room, man, I busted out crying," he said.
Henderson, who says he wants to be a biology teacher one day, feels inspired by Barack Obama's path to the White House. "If I can follow in the same footsteps he took, I can do the same thing, but even better," he said.
Miller, 50, said she never wanted for anything growing up in northwest Washington; she had piano lessons, went to her prom and took college courses. But in her adulthood, alcohol shackled her for nearly three decades. She ended up homeless, at times sleeping in a car. She's one of seven women from Washington's N Street Village — which provides social services to homeless women — invited to participate in the People's Inaugural Project.
"Some nights, I just walked the streets because sometimes I didn't feel like going through the activities to find a place to stay — because you have to offer something, your body, drugs, something," she said.
Miller now works two jobs to make ends meet. And she said she hasn't had a drink in 2 1/2 years.
Tuesday, she'll have a chance to celebrate this — and the new U.S. president.
"I just know it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience," said Miller.