Once a year, lives are literally transformed at the Lowcountry Down Syndrome Society's Night of Champions.

The gala dinner highlights exceptional contributions made in the workplace by differently abled people, including those with Down syndrome. This year's dinner will be May 11 at the Hyatt Regency Savannah.

Event chair Allyson Harvin says much will be the same as it has been in the past - with some exceptions.

"Jamie Deen is still going to host," she says. "We have five champions selected.

"One thing we just started last year is that one award is held out and called the Message in Motion Award," Harvin says. "It's reserved for someone who heard our message at Night of Champions and went back and added a differently abled team member to their staff."

Last year, Chris Smith, owner of Five Guys Burgers and Fries, and his employee, Lee Brown, were recognized.

The Night of Champions began as a way to meet the needs of adults with Down syndrome.

"We were doing a good job from the time of diagnosis in pregnancy to high school graduation," Harvin says. "What we saw was that there was a significant need for opportunities once the individual graduated high school."

The LDSS approached the local business community for advice and suggestions about what should be done. Since its inception, Night of Champions has been expanded to include others with different types of intellectual disabilities.

"The message to the business community is that the differently abled have abilities," Harvin says. "There is an untapped pool of eager employees they may not even have considered. We have seen progressive growth since our inaugural year in 2010.

"Last year, we served over 600 dinners," she says. "Jamie Deen always jokes, 'Once you come, we've got you.'"

The uplifting life stories shared at the event are always inspiring.

"We have so many people coming back and bringing other people with them," Harvin says. "This is not a fundraising event; it's an awareness-raising event.

"We want decision makers in the seats. It's encouraging to see other people bring new ears to this message.

"We want you to do whatever it is you do to further the message," she says. "If it's possible to hire people, then hire them, or pass the information to someone who does."

LDSS does not do placement or training, Harvin says.

"We shine the light on the fact these candidates do exist," she says. "We have candidates available for employment and will go into businesses to do evaluations."

Why is Night of Champions so successful?

"Because you hear success story after success story after success story," Harvin says. "Employers describe the benefit of adding someone who is differently abled and the impact they've made in their job.

"They also talk about the intangible benefits they did not expect, like morale building and positive work ethic. This results in a tighter-knit work family.

"We have tissues on the table," she says. "Many will be crying after hearing these stories."

Some of the stories are more than inspiring - they're incredible.

"I literally could tear up talking about big moments from the past," Harvin says. "We had an employee champion who early on was deemed unemployable.

"He actually had worked for the city for 14 years working in the Leisure Services department maintaining ball fields. He did not talk until he was extremely comfortable with you.

"His employer was telling all about him and the contributions he'd made, adding that the employee didn't say much," she says. "Suddenly, we heard the employee say, 'I want to talk.'"

The man walked up to the podium and held up his award. He said, "I am Kenneth."

"With those words, he was saying, 'This is me, those wonderful words they are saying are about me,'" Harvin says. "There is story after story like that.

"Every year, we say, 'It couldn't possibly get better than this,' but it does. It takes on the personalities of the men and women it's honoring.

"That makes it different every year," she says. "Our recipients are different every year and they are so varied."

The seated dinner has a cash bar. There also is a silent auction.

"We talk about the Night of Champions' purpose is to lead the way toward a brighter future," Harvin says. "It's about people whose lives had been changed because one person spent one evening at this event and was able to change someone's life.

"All of us can relate to this. It's no different for any segment of the population.

"It's why vocation is so important," she says. "It provides a vehicle for these individuals to contribute much-needed skills in the business community, and also lets them have sense of pride. They run into so many 'nos' and finally finding 'yes,' they have what matters."


What: Lowcountry Down Syndrome Society's eighth annual Night of Champions

When: 6 p.m. May 11

Where: Hyatt Regency Savannah. 2 W. Bay St.

Cost: $40

Info: nightofchampions.org