Although you might not know it, the Mediation Center of the Coastal Empire plays an important role in the Savannah community.

For over 30 years, the center has helped mediate difficult situations between individuals and groups. They also provide training for conflict resolution and peer mediation. They've worked with the magistrate court of Chatham County for years and since beginning a youth program in 2010, have now moved into over 30 schools in the area.

For the first time, the nonprofit is hosting a big event to help raise funds for those programs. The Velvet Gala will feature members of Savannah's gypsy jazz group Velvet Caravan bringing an array of good music, along with drinks, appetizers and a raffle.

While billed as a fundraiser, the event also acts as an awareness vehicle for the organization. Mediation Center Executive Director Jill Cheeks wanted to draw attention to two new programs the center launched in recent years.

"We have resources that go out into the community and teach youth how to have good communication skills, resolve conflict and how to have difficult conversations," Cheeks said. "We have around 70 volunteer mediators who mediate community cases, as well as court-ordered mediations, such as divorce.

"One of the ways we wanted to do more outreach into the community was by utilizing our assets, which are these people who are very skilled and trained at helping people better communicate and how to have those conversations so it avoids a lot of bad things down the road. That's how our youth programs were created."

The fundraiser will benefit three of the Mediation Center's youth programs. The Peer Mediation program, which began in 2010, allows for participants to work through disputes with a mediator in a private setting in local schools.

"The students who are trained to be peer mediators, they're gaining leadership skills and they become an informal person for students to go and talk to," Cheeks said. "The results are, honestly, amazing."

One of the newest programs, Children of Peaceful Engagement, or COPE, focuses on teaching young children how to deal with their emotions and stressful situations. The Community Conferencing program is a partnership the center has with juvenile court for handling youth that are facing felony charges and more serious issues.

"All of the funds from the event will go toward our youth programs," Cheeks said. "We have volunteer mediators, which is how we're able to sustain ourselves. Those volunteer mediators, it's a time to thank them. This whole event is about, let's make an impact in our community with our youth and help support these programs, so more children are able to have those difficult conversations in a nonviolent way."

While serving on the board for the Savannah Children's Choir with Velvet Caravan violinist Ricardo Ochoa, Cheeks mentioned to him the two new youth programs. Ochoa was on board to help and the two worked out the idea for a gala.

"She told me about the Mediation Center," Ochoa said. "I had no idea what that was ⦠I was like, I would love to help. I think more people need to know about it. More than just a fundraiser to get money, it seems like an awareness event. I didn't know about it. Now I do."

Ochoa will be joined by Velvet Caravan's Jared Hall, as well as Mark Chesanow and Jeff Powell for this special concert. While not a full Velvet Caravan show, the lineup will feature a lot of the band's music. Chesanow and Powell have each become supportive members of the band, filling in on occasion.

"As the band is growing in different ways, we're kind of fitting in certain musicians that we see fit," Ochoa said. "They are becoming the backbone of the band as far as arranging for us and writing for us. It's cool to have a support team. They are indirectly part of Velvet. They're becoming more contributors to the organization.

"The gala is more of a party atmosphere. It will be high-energy swing tunes, but also allowing people to do their thing," Ochoa said.


What: Velvet Gala to benefit Mediation Center

When: 5:30 p.m. Jan. 18

Where: Cohen's Retreat, 5715 Skidaway Road

Cost: $45