Residents celebrate at Omni

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Karen Hendricks, who works at the front desk of the Omni New Haven Hotel, took two days off from work this week and hoped to spend them in Washington for the inauguration. But when her travel plans did not pan out, she volunteered instead at Tuesday night’s New Haven Presidential Inaugural Ball at the Omni.

“I’m in New Haven celebrating, just the same,” she said, donning a floor-length silver dress.

Opening with a formal multi-course dinner alongside a cash bar, the event included ballroom, salsa and Kenyan dance performances by local companies, as well as live music and dancing that continued until midnight. Proceeds from the ball — which cost between $25 and $125 for guests — benefited the New Haven Public Schools Foundation.

New Haven resident James Fripp was among the guests, wearing a scarf embroidered with the words “Yes We Can.”

“New Haven needs it,” he said of the celebration. “New York needs it. Everywhere needs it.”

That was the philosophy behind organizers’ decisions to host the event in the heart of the Elm City.

“It’s so expensive to go to Washington,” said Brian McGrath, a volunteer on the organizing committee for the event. “It’s too crowded and too full. For every person going to Washington, there are 10 who can’t.”

The ball was the brainchild of Henri Sumner, the former chairman of New Haven’s Cultural Affairs Department. Sumner, who was in charge of entertainment on the event’s committee, said he originally wanted the profits from the event to fund a scholarship for a New Haven high school student interested in political science or economics, but once the committee for the event was formed, organizers decided to support the New Haven Public Schools foundation instead. Patricia DeMaio, executive director of the foundation, said she hopes the ball will give the 3-year-old organization more publicity.

“Education has been so important in Barack Obama’s life,” said Event Chair Lesley Mills, whose home care company, Griswold Special Care, was one of three lead sponsors of the ball. Moreover, attendees said they found the inauguration to be especially meaningful — both to them as individuals and to the broader New Haven community. Cynthia Morrill, a New Haven resident, said Obama’s campaign and election has been important to the New Haven community at large given the city’s history with civil rights. Martha Dye, an infant and toddler care specialist at the Yale Child Study Center, pointed out that her own education was shaped? altered? affected by the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision striking down the “separate but equal” doctrine.

“He really has inspired me to do more than I have,” she said of the new president.

Open to all members of the community, the ball hosted guests ranging from high school students to senior citizens. Over 900 people had registered on Monday, Mills said, and she estimated that when all was said and done, 1,000 people had turned out for the event.

Indeed, as excited residents lingered in the hotel lobby, the ball got off to a late start. Ziael Aponte, a young dancer from Freddy’s Salsa Flavor Co., waited patiently at the back of the room in his gold and black costume as guests slowly took their seats. The dance performances ultimately started 20 minutes late.

But Mills said she didn’t think anyone would mind that the ball did not quite run on time.

“The inauguration didn’t either,” she said. “So I think we have license.”

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