The Albion Foundation triumph with Dinner With a Difference

Diners seated at a table blindfolded.

As the curtain came down on a day of operations at West Midlands Safari Park, another rose on a special evening for The Albion Foundation.

Whilst the animals nestle down for a night of rest on the southern side of the park, just a few hundred metres away the guests are pouring in, donning their finery for a memorable night of disability awareness. The glorious Treetops Pavilion casts an idyllic shadow across the leafy landscape of the North Worcestershire attraction, its accentuated white canvas peaks held aloft by multiple mahogany plinths.

Upon the entrance, a red carpet is rolled and inside are tables set pristinely, angled towards a gleaming stage where many courageous speakers will tell their tales throughout the evening. The first of those is John Homer, supporters club chairman, brimming with poised confidence and enthusiasm as he steps up to the podium to introduce the evening.

Rousing applause greets opening guest “Blind” Dave Heeley, who in his typical buoyant fashion, twinged with tales of yesteryear, initiates the first course – a chicken and apricot terrine laced with textures of tarragon. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Dinner With a Difference without the difference, as each guest plunges into the world of the visually impaired by slipping on their blindfold for the starter. 

A gaggle of mumbles and laughter fill the room, but there’s a buzz of genuine awe as the many guests grab a small glimpse of the challenge that Dave and so many others face daily.

"Blind" Dave Heeley talks with John Homer on the stage.

As the second course waits in the wings to be served, Albion Foundation adult programme support worker Lucy Moore steps up to enlighten the audience with her empowering story of disability defiance. The audience watches on in wonderment as Lucy describes how the main course will allow guests to be transported into a world of physical impairment.

An assiette of chicken is served, pan seared with a side of fondant potato alongside silky orange roasted carrots and underlined by a parsnip puree. The twist is that participants must have their dominant hand behind their back; while eating just with their nondominant, for most this proves testing – spilling coarse droplets of gravy onto napkins as they attempt to lift food from plate to mouth.

Once again, the consensus is that same feeling of admiration. That people like Lucy do this every day as part of their normal life, and they should be acclaimed for that.

Lucy Moore tells guests her story of working at The Albion Foundation.

To diverge the evening, former Albion midfielder Andy Johnson steps up to the stage to welcome the live auction, his breezy attitude is infectious as he pings bidding across the different corners of the Pavilion. The audience roars with laughter when he misinterprets one guest scratching their head as a bid.

Vendue complete and a whole host of treasured items won both during this and the ongoing silent auction. However, ‘AJ’ is not finished yet as he invites “Blind” Dave onto the stage one last time to relive the Blind Walk from Wembley Stadium to The Hawthorns and tell some more tales about his visual impairments with some true comic twists.

Andy Johnson looks at the camera whilst holding the Jed Wallace shirt to be auctioned.

Onto the third and final course, which should appease those of the sweet tooth persuasion. Chris Price, former Albion Foundation disability coach walks up to the stage to introduce it, offering his account of living with a hearing impairment – the warmth and passion he has for the Foundation oozes through every word. As plates of luscious chocolate torte and a sour berry sorbet land on the guests’ tables, Chris encourages the room to stay silent and to use non-verbal communication for the remainder of the course.

You would be able to hear a pin drop as dessert begins, the clinking of silver cutlery the only audible tings filling the air. Appreciation and perspective bounces from one end of the Pavilion to the other as the guests begin to get a sense of what it’s like to lose that element of verbal communication.

Then followed words of thanks from director Rob Lake, who reiterated that guests shouldn’t pity the likes of Dave, Lucy and Chris, but admire them and be awestruck by their determination to overcome their personal obstacles.

Chris Price talks with Lucy Moore before heading onto the stage to announce the dessert course.

Beaming with joy, deputy director Jonathan Ward triumphed a successful evening for the Foundation as the Frank Sinatra tribute sang in the background. “It was a great night to celebrate the Foundation and everyone that it supports. We felt it was true of the Foundation’s core values to celebrate those who struggle with disabilities and the challenges they face on a daily basis.

“Seeing everyone come out to support us with this event is fantastic. It’s a shining example of how well we’re aided by the community along with our partners and sponsors.

“We’d like to say a huge thank you to everyone who came along this evening and to our partners at West Midlands Safari Park who were welcoming hosts throughout.”

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