The story of UMass Boston’s ninth annual gala could be told in numbers—the 800-plus guests who attended, or the record $1.4 million raised—but it is better told in names.
Names like James Brett, who has dedicated his life to the principle that every person, including those with intellectual disabilities, has something vital to offer to the community.
Names like Ashley Wolfe, an Institute for Community Inclusion researcher with Down syndrome, who delivered an inspirational speech about finding a place where she could make full use of her talents.
Brett, president and CEO of the New England Council, was the guest of honor at the ninth annual gala, held September 16 at the Seaport World Trade Center in Boston’s emerging Innovation District. The money raised at this year’s event will fund the James T. Brett Chair in Disability and Workforce Development, the nation’s first endowed chair in this field.
Though the new chair bears his name, Brett was predictably humble about the honor.
“This isn’t just about me. It’s really about you,” he told the gala crowd. “It’s about your generosity and your commitment to finding ways to help people with disabilities make the contributions to our community they are fully able and anxious to make. On their behalf, let me say thank you for your support.”
The Brett Chair continues UMass Boston’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, also evidenced in the creation of the new School for Global Inclusion and Social Development. William Kiernan, the dean of the School for Inclusion, will hold the Brett Chair.
Chancellor J. Keith Motley called Brett “a legendary public servant” and presented him with an engraved chair to represent the academic post named for him.
The sponsors’ generosity signaled a strong belief in UMass Boston’s mission, Motley said.
“It’s a powerful expression of your conviction that this university has the research, the intellectual capacity, and the commitment to fulfill the promise of the Brett Chair.”
Brett, a former member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, was greeted by a gala crowd including political leaders from across the region. U.S. Senator Ed Markey, U.S. Representative Joseph Kennedy III, New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan, former Maine Governor Joe Hannah, and state Senator Linda Dorcena Forry were among those in attendance.
The event also drew business leaders and longtime supporters of UMass Boston including Jack Connors Jr., a founding partner of Hill Holliday, who emceed the event and co-chaired the Gala Host Committee with Patricia Jacobs and Joseph R. Nolan, Jr. Over 100 sponsors contributed to the record fundraising total.
Guests heard a musical performance by Ronan Tynan, the Irish tenor and double amputee who has risen to great success in the music world. They also watched a short film on the Brett family by Melanie Perkins McLaughlin, filmmaker-in-residence at the ICI.
In the film, Jim Brett and his siblings recall how their commitment to equitable treatment for all was formed by their experiences with their older brother, Jack, who had intellectual disabilities.
“He truly was the inspiration that led his brothers and his sisters and many others as well to understand that each of us has a personal responsibility to do what we can to care for persons with disabilities,” Brett told the crowd. “In his own way, he was our teacher, and we took the lesson to heart."