Sarah Jessica Parker, Harry Connick Jr. Headline Children's Hospital Benefit

By Jenny Berg April 25, 2012, 3:50 PM EDT

Sarah Jessica Parker was the M.C. At the end of the evening, she read aloud an email from her sister-in-law, who has a close connection to Children's Memorial Hospital. She also gave a toast in each of the three dining rooms before dinner and read John F. Kennedy's famous quotation, "Children are world's most valuable resource, and its best hope for the future."

Photo: Jeff Schear/Getty Images for Ann and Robert H. Lurie Hospital of Chicago

Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital Gala
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Almost four years to the day after the groundbreaking ceremony that signaled the start of its construction, the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago hosted a glittery, celebrity-packed benefit on Friday night. With headliners Sarah Jessica Parker and Harry Connick Jr., the evening raised $5.2 million toward the hospital's $600 million fund-raising goal—one of the most ambitious campaigns ever to be announced by a U.S. children's hospital.

Ann Lurie oversaw the entire planning process, working with Jennie Steffus, the vice president of events for the founders' board and affiliated organizations at Children's Memorial Hospital, AgencyEA, and Pat Hurley & Associates to execute the much-buzzed-about affair. The agency, which handled the event's production, design, and management, has worked with Steffus on related events for the past several years, including the new hospital's groundbreaking ceremony, campaign launch, and its 2009 topping-off ceremony.

The hospital officially opens on June 9, and it was important to planners to hold the preview gala in the actual building, even though it wasn't the most logistically simple venue. “The gala was to celebrate the building and all the wonderful programs and people who will fill it,” said Steffus. “We always knew it had to be inside the hospital. We knew we'd have certain limitations on the amount of people we could accommodate, so there was some dialogue on whether or not we wanted to allow the numbers to grow and perhaps add a tent to accommodate the overflow, but it was quickly decided that it had to all take place in the hospital.”

After self-guided tours of the hospital using audio devices with narration from Ann Lurie herself—who was, of course, present at the gala— the 700 guests had dinner in one of three dining rooms. “The most challenging aspect was creating unique event spaces within a hospital,” said Emily Olson, senior account manager at AgencyEA. “To add another layer, the building itself was under construction during the planning process, so every time we came in, it looked a little different.”

Ultimately, each dining room got a different color scheme of green, orange, or purple. In each space, “we wanted to create a look and feel that was playful and whimsical, yet elegant enough for our guests,” Olson said. In each bright room, Jami Darwin Chiang's tall paper centerpieces were in the shapes of airplanes, flowers, and windmills. “The color scheme, graphics, and whimsical designs really made you feel like a kid again,” Olson said.

The night ended with dessert, cocktails, and a set from Harry Connick Jr. near an indoor garden on the 11th floor. “This would be our only opportunity to be able to host something this unique,” Steffus said. “After June 9th, we'll never have the chance to have our donors hang out in an operating room, have dinner next to the fire truck [exhibit], or listen to an A-list entertainer in the Sky Garden. It was a once-in-lifetime opportunity and we completely seized the moment.”

For Steffus, the challenge lay in the lofty goal. “We raised that $5.2 million in less than eight months, so I would say some of the challenging logistics were just keeping up with the juggernaut that took off when our hospital leadership decided to champion this effort,” she said. “To have leaders and philanthropic titans like Ann Lurie, Chris Reyes, Lester Crown, Penny Pritzker, Andy McKenna, and Bob Murley rally around this undertaking, we all worked hard to make sure we didn't let them down and provided any support they needed. They worked tirelessly to secure sponsorship dollars and sell [$100,000] tables to this event.  So the devil was in the detail. Being able to staff our volunteers strategically and timely was very important to us.”

Though the preview gala has wrapped, the hospital is hardly done with celebrating its new name and home. Over the next few weeks, events include tours for employees, physicians, donors, and construction workers who worked on the project; tours will also be offered to the city's community at large. On May 12, a “Move for the Kids” 5K run and walk will start at Children's Memorial Hospital in Lincoln Park and end in Streeterville at the new facility. And on June 4, a ribbon-cutting will officially dedicate the new building.

This article was updated from the originally published version to clarify the roles of the various event producers.

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