Decked out in suits and cocktail dresses, grooving to the tunes of The Felix Brown Band and participating in a Wickford-style car show and tailgate, the hundreds of participants in . This year, the event organizers Toby and Deb Aaron of are looking to up the ante – and they’re getting help from a pretty big name.
This year, Heels & Wheels is teaming up with the Bob Woodruff Foundation. Created by award-winning television reporter Bob Woodruff and his family after he sustained serious injuries covering the war in Iraq, the foundation is a national nonprofit focused on helping injured service members, veterans and their families. According to Anne Marie Dougherty of the Bob Woodruff Foundation, it's the first time the group has partnered with a grassroots organization in the country.
"We have a lot of our own events but this was such an interesting example of a grassroots movement," said Dougherty. "We're really picky about what roads we go down."
For those smitten with the inaugural Wickford Heels & Wheels event last year, the core of the event will remain intact: the two-day event will feature a dinner, gala and auction on the first night and a car show and tailgate party on the second day. But, expect a more ambitious and soldierly affair this time around.
Last year, the event was able to grant three wishes to children with life-threatening illnesses through A Wish Come True – a Warwick-based foundation. This year, however, the organization looks to honor and support the U.S. military. Proceeds from the event will benefit the Bob Woodruff Foundation and the Rhode Island National Guard. Though the organization raised $75,000 last year, the Aarons have lofty goals this year – aiming to raise more than $100,000 between the two organizations.
This year’s military theme hits close to home for the Aaron family as Toby and wife Deb’s son-in-law is currently on active duty in the Middle East.
“My son in law is in Afghanistan and I know what my daughter is going through,” said Deb. “I just knew there was a huge need.”
Knowing the hardships on military families while loved ones are serving abroad, the Aarons decided that proceeds from this year’s Heels & Wheels event would benefit the Rhode Island National Guard’s Soldiers and Airmen Relief Fund. The fund, established in 1997, provides emergency financial assistance to any members of the RI National Guard. For example, the fund helps cover funeral costs in the event of the death of a guardsman, helping to support the family left behind. According to the Aarons, the fund’s only support comes through private donations. They hope the Heels & Wheels partnership can help it stay afloat.
“There’s going to be a need for this a long time,” said Toby Aaron. “Today, if every conflict ended, there’s a generation of people impacted and damaged by these wars.”
The Bob Woodruff Foundation is also interested in the outcome and success of this year's event. According to Dougherty, Heels & Wheels could become a model for future fundraising efforts.
"If this works then I am absolutely planning to use this as a replicable type of thing," said Dougherty. "I don't see why it can't be an annual event or why it can't be replicated elsewhere. Why not, right?"
This year’s event, set for June 1 and 2, will also feature a military presence as each table at the Friday night gala will have two reserved seats – one for a member of the military and another for their guest, free of charge.
Friday night’s classy “heels” gala at the will also be a bit more grandiose this year, as event organizers have added a VIP cocktail party prior to the dinner as well as 100 more seats – augmenting seating from 250 to 350. The night, including silent and live auctions, will be emceed by Nantucket-based comedian Brian Glowacki. The Aarons also hint at a possible “celebrity appearance.”
Day two, the “wheels” component of the extravaganza, will be much more “family” oriented with an antique car show at the Wickford town parking lot with food vendors and a DJ.
Though the event officially benefits the Bob Woodruff Foundation and RI National Guard, the Aarons are also hopeful of how it will help another entity – Wickford Village.
“We really want this to bring awareness to the village and help to revitalize it,” said Deb Aaron.
Unlike last year’s gala, the sophomore year for Heels & Wheels will make use of the following the relocation of Beechwood House and construction of a new bandstand. Using the new assets at the beach, the Aarons hope to make Heels & Wheels stack up to other well-known, high-class events in the state.
“If it were in Newport, it wouldn’t even be a flip on the map because they have so many of these types of events,” said Toby Aaron. “Here, it's going to be huge.”