Fundraising fashion: Bella Boutique’s annual fall preview show supports Emma’s House

By RUSS LAWRENCE – for the Ravalli Republic

The Bella Boutique Fall Fashion Preview, set for Saturday, Sept. 13, is really two events in one: It’s a great dress-up party, where attendees are invited to dress in chic vintage fashions – including hairstyles and accessories – and enjoy an evening that includes a runway show of the latest fall fashions, as well as on-stage entertainment during the evening. Much – though not all – of the evening’s program is aimed at women, but there’s plenty to make it an attractive evening for men, too.

It’s also the biggest annual fundraiser for Emma’s House, a nonprofit that aids child victims of abuse and neglect in Ravalli County. The event includes both silent and live auctions, as well as some novel ways to donate to the organization.

There’s a third aspect to the event, though, that isn’t obvious to any but the closest observers, and that’s the fulfillment of the vision of Bella Boutique owners Mary Marsh and Claire Kemp. They put countless hours into the event, now in its 11th year, and have watched it grow from year to year.

That success is gratifying to them, first as owners of a business whose name is associated with the popular women’s fashion happening, but also as two people committed to making their community a better place to live.

“We want to do more than sell clothing,” Marsh attested. “We want to contribute to our community in a meaningful way. It’s who Claire and I are.”

“If we have the ability, we have to aid our community,” Kemp agreed.

Val Widmer, executive director for Emma’s House Children’s Advocacy Center, credits local businesses, and Bella Boutique in particular, for helping to make the services they offer available to their clients at no cost.

“We’re so fortunate to have businesses like this that want to help our kids. They’re great role models, and they make our community stronger,” she said.

Emma’s House conducts forensic interviews of alleged victims of abuse, and coordinates a team that ties together law enforcement, social services, criminal justice, and mental and physical health professionals to ensure that victims are protected and receive treatment, and that abusers are apprehended and justice is served.

In Ravalli County, they help up to 150 victims a year, and are working to expand their services.

Planners expect 350 people to pack the First Interstate Center at the Ravalli County Fairgrounds, and suggest that those who don’t want to miss out should buy their $25 tickets soon.

That ticket will get you a dinner, catered by Zen Kitchen, a no-host martini bar provided by Café Firenze, and a presentation of this fall’s latest fashion trends by 11 local “models,” who are in fact customers of Bella Boutique, Ford’s, and Bob Ward & Sons.

A photo booth will be set up for guests in their finery who wish to take home some “glam” shots.

There will also be entertainment, including the hugely popular mother-and-son, song-and-dance team of Natalie and Max Naidl. Kemp hinted at a humorous finale for the evening, but would say no more about it.

The heart of the evening, though, is a show of support for Emma’s House. Local businesses and individuals have donated scores of items for the fundraiser. Silent auction bidders will compete for prizes ranging from art to oil changes, and lavish meals; the live auction will feature items as diverse as pedigreed Chihuahua and English Lab pups, and a “Man Package” that includes four ski and golf passes, steak dinners, and a growler-a-month of local beer.

There’s also a “Diva Table” for next year’s event, that includes a mani/pedi at Belleza spa, hair, makeup, limo, and a “table of opulence” at the event, according to Widmer; and the Emma’s House board is sponsoring a catered gourmet meal.

Bella Boutique has also been soliciting donations of “lightly worn” clothing from its customers, and those highly-prized items will also be for sale at the event, along with vintage purse “grab bags,” with the proceeds going to Emma’s House.

Widmer said that the partnership between Bella and Emma’s House has been like a good marriage, each partner aiding the other. “It’s been an awesome collaboration,” she said. “They’re just such a great group to work with – it’s easy, it’s fun, it doesn’t feel like work, and that’s in huge part thanks to Mary and Claire.”

Widmer also recognized committee members Sharon Dedmon and Cyndi McNeil for their creativity and energy.

For Kemp and Marsh, the event is one way to project a positive image of their business to the public, but the effort they put into the Fall Fashion Preview is all out of proportion to the return on their investment.

“If it’s anything, it’s draining, but it fulfills our values,” Kemp said. Their business was always meant to be about more than the exchange of goods and services, it was to be a way to effect change in their community, she said.

“We want to be supportive and philanthropic. It’s in both our mindsets,” Marsh added.

Raising money for Emma’s House is what makes the effort worthwhile. “It’s fulfilling in that we’ve created an event that people enjoy and want to come to,” Kemp said, and in knowing that part of what Emma’s House has been able to accomplish is directly traceable to their efforts. “There’s a sense of pride in that,” she acknowledged.

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