Murray makes time for a special evening

WATKINSVILLE – Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray has often felt his share of pre-game jitters before going out to perform on Saturdays before thousands of fans.

Blaine Marable/Correspondent Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray (rear left), kicker Brandon Bogotay (rear right) and strong safety Josh Murray pose with contestants in the Big Hearts Pageant, a fundraiser held by Extra Special People.
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But Murray’s stomach fluttered with a different kind of butterfly Saturday night as he, his brother Josh and Bulldogs’ place-kicker Brandon Bogotay served as celebrity escorts at the fourth annual Big Heart Pageant at the Oconee County Civic Center.

The pageant benefits Extra Special People, a nonprofit organization based in Watkinsville that provides year-round support and programming for children and young adults with special needs.

“I may be a little more nervous tonight than I would be in a game,” Murray said. “At least in football I’ve got a helmet on, so nobody’s seeing me. But I’ve got nothing to hide behind tonight, so I’ll probably be a little bit nervous out there. I want to be out there to support the kids because it’s all about them tonight.”

Saturday’s night’s event – which in previous years was held at North Oconee High School – was sold out a week in advance and overflow seats were available in the civic center’s ballroom, which also held some 200 silent auction items, donated by likes of everybody from the Foundry Park Inn to Lane Creek Golf Club to Widespread Panic.

ESP executive director Laura Whitaker, who also serves as pageant director, said the Big Heart Pageant – which is the organization’s major yearly fundraiser – satisfied a number of objectives for the group, which serves more than 150 families in an eight-county area.

“It raises money for camp and it’s a great night for the kids,” she said. “We have 100 volunteers running this show – 50 backstage with our contestants and 50 running the silent auction and all the things we’re selling.”

ESP Summer Camp, hosted by Camp Twin Lakes, is held for seven weeks each year, providing campers with a variety of stimulating activities that are not just fun, but are also designed to teach and promote physical, developmental and social skills.

“This is our major fundraiser,” Whitaker said. “Basically, a couple of years ago we lost a golf tournament that was held every year for ESP. We had to figure out how to make that money back to have camp for the kids. We went to a special needs pageant in Gwinnett County and thought, ‘Gosh we can do this. We can do it even better.’ ”

Whitaker added that ESP hoped to match last year’s fundraising total of $21,000. The actual cost of the summer camp is about $150,000, or roughly $500 per participant. Families pay $100, so it’s up to ESP, Whitaker said, to raise the rest.

Seven-year-old Jessie Johnson of Winder was one of the 47 contestants in this year’s pageant and her mother, Stacey Johnson, said that her daughter had been eagerly awaiting her opportunity to take the stage and soak in the adoration of the crowd.

“This will be Jessie’s third pageant,” Stacey Johnson said. “She also goes to summer camp and does just about everything else ESP offers. It’s made a world of difference for her self-confidence. She’s much more outgoing and she’d do everything if I let her. … I think it’s wonderful. This is something that would never ordinarily happen for these kids. Jessie loves to get on stage and hear people clap and she likes to watch all her friends, too. They’re all having a great time.”

Stacey Johnson said her daughter was particularly looking forward to visiting with the Bulldogs football players, who took part in a cookout with ESP members last summer.

“Having the Georgia football players as escorts just adds to the excitement,” she said. “When we told her a football player would be walking out with her, well, she just can’t wait. She knows some of the players because they played with her at the cookout.”

Besides raising money and providing the contestants with an event dedicated strictly to them, the Big Heart Pageant is also designed to bring awareness of ESP to the community, said Carter Strickland, chairman of the ESP’s board of directors.

“It’s important that the community starts getting involved in nonprofits like Extra Special People,” Strickland said. “We’ve been around for a long time and we have some strong members who have helped us through the years, but now we’re trying to broaden our horizons.”

Strickland was especially appreciative of the football players who agreed to take part in the pageant.

“Aaron Murray stepping forward and doing this for us really helps,” he said. “It shows a compassion on his part far beyond his years. Here’s a 19- or 20-year-old man who’s willing to spend his Saturday night making the night special for these kids.

“We didn’t ask him to do this – he volunteered to do it. I applaud him and (coach) Mark Richt for having that type of young man in his program.”

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