Mia Washington knows what makes a party
Michael Barnes, Out & About
Serving as master of ceremonies for the evening, Austin's most social city council member, Mike Martinez, convincingly impersonated an early rapper.
Draped in vintage fashion, youngish guests paid tribute to Pat Benatar, Madonna and Cyndi Lauper, among other 1980s pop sensations, hoping to win prizes for best costume and best dancing.
Filling the Parish nightclub on East Sixth Street, they writhed well into the evening.
The mad party scientist behind this controlled mayhem last year was a beaming, still-young woman whose 20-year-old daughter can only imagine the 1980s.
In fact, Buffalo, N.Y.-born Mia Washington, 44, works for one of Austin's most serious charities. The Austin Children's Shelter, beneficiary of the New Wave Ball, provides protection and care for children and young adults through emergency shelter care.
"We're the place where the healing begins," Washington likes to say. This director of special events knows, however, that a social affair to raise money for a critical nonprofit should not hit their guests over the head with the cause.
She recommends a well-crafted video, upbeat, to tell the charity's story. A live speech is optional. Neither should exceed three minutes. "People don't want to hear talking," she says. "If they came to your event, they want to support you. They also want to have a good time."
The oldest of five seems born to lighten the collective mood.
"I was fun, loud and playful," she remembers of life with father Walter Louis Sims, who owned restaurants, and mother Sharon Ann Sims, a bookkeeper, both from Buffalo but now residents of Portland, Ore. "How I am now is how I was as a kid."
Washington changed schools several times, finishing her secondary education at suburban Pomona High School in Arvada, Colo. College was hit or miss, but she's still determined to finish her communications degree from St. Edward's University.
She studied music, dance and art, and being the eldest, she learned to be responsible for others. Perhaps because her parents were self-made business people, she learned to shine while applying for her first job in retail.
"I wanted to be at the mall. I wanted to buy clothes and see my friends," she says. "My father coached me for job interviews. ‘Shake their hands and say ‘"When do I start?"' When the interview was done, I yelled it — ‘WHEN DO I START?' By the time I got home, they hired me."
Washington later did office work and eventually landed a job with the Urban League in Portland, Ore.
"That's where I fell in love with nonprofits," she says. "I loved what I did and that what I did directly affected somebody. Somebody ate because of what I did. Somebody got better because of what I did."
She followed leader Herman Lessard to Austin when he became the CEO of the regional chapter.
"I knew nothing of Texas," she confesses. "New Yorkers have a poor perception of Texas." By now she was a single mother. Azia Washington, 20, studies dance at Tyler Junior College.
"She's most phenomenal thing I've ever produced," Mia Washington says with a laugh. (She intersperses any conversation with generous laughter.)
A corporate gig in marketing and event planning ended in an untimely layoff, but Washington landed on her feet with the United Way, then St. Ed's. She's been with the children's shelter for six years. Among her duties are planning the big annual events. Besides the New Wave Ball (Feb. 24 at Speakeasy nightclub), there's Fashion for Compassion (March 23), a golf tournament (September) and the grown-up gala (Nov. 3).
Meanwhile, she's the channel for third-party fundraisers — from lemonade stands to bike races — that benefit the shelter. She ensures that the gatherings are legitimate and ethical, fitting with the children's shelter brand.
"It's a very valuable revenue stream," Washington says of these grass-roots affairs.
She dreamed up the New Wave Ball as a way to recruit new leaders.
"I started looking at events like the White Party (for LifeWorks) and others that were geared to a young demographic," she says. "There's a lot of young wealth here."
Her formula for an effective fundraiser is deceptively simple, but as your social columnist can attest, not so easy to achieve.
"You've got to have good food, good drink and good people," she says. "Having the right people there makes the difference. Then a good theme. A gala is a gala. A dinner is a dinner. Everybody does that. My job is to put the ACS flavor on our events."
She works through volunteer committees, social media and other networking tools to get those people to the event. Even when things go reasonably well, there are no social guarantees.
The first New Wave Ball, with its campy '80s theme, could have been the last one. Set in an awkward hotel space, it offered an overabundance of food and a cramped dance floor.
"The first one happened quickly," Washington says. "I had to fight a bit to have the ball happen again. But the concept was good. Nobody else was doing that. The elements were there."
In 2011, the ball moved to the Parish, a big, friendly, upstairs room best known for its superior acoustics. Media judges returned — I was one, not in costume — and many of the problems were fixed. Even so, emcee Martinez was forced to shout out raffle numbers to a distracted crowd and the wait for the prize announcements lasted way too long.
"You always need to get feedback," Washington says. "Whether you like it or not. And you have to weigh it. We are still tweaking it."
Like a stage director, Washington imagines what her guests will experience in advance. "People are sensory-oriented," she says. "I try to be a guest and walk through it as a guest. What do they see? What do they hear? What do they smell? To me, that builds it all up."
At Speakeasy, guests will be greeted with event lights, banners and several DeLoreans on Congress Avenue.
"How they are received at the door sets the tone," says Washington, who stations seasoned greeters near the reception table and directs refreshments to the guests before they even mingle. She also includes children at shelter events — not clients — to remind people subliminally of the charity's mission.
"You tell your story when people don't know you are telling it," Washington says. "And if you tell the sad part, you also must tell the good. There's got to be an upside."