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Samantha Simon
Nov 29, 2017 @ 6:15 pm

On Giving Tuesday, there’s one magical spot in Manhattan that draws a charitable and well-dressed crowd unlike any other: the UNICEF Snowflake Ball. Each year, New Yorkers put on their sparkly best and head downtown for the annual star-studded event, which focuses on the organization's lifesaving global work. And last night’s 13th annual gala certainly delivered, both in terms of star power and philanthropy.

As guests settled into their seats at Cipriani Wall Street, host Harry Connick Jr. took the stage to welcome them to a fun- and fundraising-filled evening. “We have a very, very memorable night ahead of us,” he said. “We are on a journey, ladies and gentlemen. A Supreme journey, if you will. A journey that ends with us being dazzled by one of the greatest voices in the history of humanity. Stop in the name of love, because Diana Ross is in the house tonight!”

Connick Jr. went on to thank the evening’s sponsors for bringing the ballroom at Cipriani Wall Street to life before turning his attention back to the night’s legendary musical guest. “Doesn’t it look incredible in here?” he asked the audience. “It’s really nice. This is what Diana Ross’s guest bathroom must look like.”

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The anticipation for Ross’s end-of-night performance was already building, but there were still plenty of action items to be checked off the charitable to-do list beforehand. First up? A surprise appearance by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who was on hand to applaud UNICEF’s work in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria hit back in in September. And in a room where the bubbly was flowing freely, Cuomo’s message was downright sobering. “Puerto Rico was actually worse than it appeared on the television screen and in the pictures,” he said. “It was just devastated. And in truth, I don’t believe we were prepared for it as a country.”

Describing the aftermath of the storm as “at the point of chaos” and “a desperate situation,” Cuomo went on to explain how UNICEF made an impact, teaming up with UPS to deliver necessities and bring a restored sense of hope to the island. “That, in many ways, is more valuable [and] more important in that moment than the actual goods,” said Cuomo. “It was a magnificent, magnificent effort.”

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The governor wrapped his speech by reflecting on an upcoming milestone in his own life, and one that had him thinking about his own mortality at that. “I’m going to hit my 60th birthday in a few days,” he said, explaining that while he’s “depressed” about turning the big 6-0, it’s led to a personal awakening of sorts. “Sixty is serious,” he said. “You sort of take a step back and you see the big picture. … When you are older, [life] gets very simple—and there is a liberation in the simplicity. It comes down to this: you are here for a limited period of time. … And your duty as a citizen, as a human being, as a parent, and a friend is to leave this place better than you found it.”

One individual who’s determined to do just that is Jake Gyllenhaal. The actor took the stage to express his gratitude to UNICEF for its “incredible” work, and delivered a heartfelt speech about what it really means to be a hero. “Events like this are important,” said Gyllenhaal. “Not just to raise money, but to remind ourselves that even with the relentless hell-scape that is the news these days, we still share the world with extraordinary humans. My friend Jeff Bauman is one of those people. Some of you may already be aware of his story and how he lost his legs in the Boston Marathon bombing, and I’ve had the honor of getting to know him over the past two years. I got to play him in a film [Stronger]. And while I wasn’t surprised by how inspiring his proximity would be, I was completely dumbstruck by what I learned in watching a hero up close."

Continued Gyllenhaal, "I think that we all have a fantasy that heroes just somehow appear on earth fully formed and without flaws. Miraculously equipped with the tools and the vision that are necessary to change the world. But knowing someone like Jeff and understanding his journey taught me that, in fact, it’s the opposite. Becoming a hero is an exercise in facing all of your fears and personal vulnerability head-on. It’s about choosing to overcome devastating loss and tragedy day by day. Heroism and triumph lies in the fact that against these odds, hope prevails. It’s that unlikely insistent hope in a world of violence and despair that sets heroes apart and inspires us all.” 

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After praising the work of UNICEF founder Helenka Pantaleoni, Gyllenhaal went on to present Special Olympics spokesperson Lucy Meyer with the Helenka Pantaleoni Humanitarian Award (the second of the night’s honors, after basketball star Dikembe Mutombo presented L’Oréal Luxe USA Group President Carol J. Hamilton with the Spirit of Compassion Award earlier in the evening). “I can think of no one more deserving of this award than the inimitable Lucy Meyer,” said Gyllenhaal.

“At just 18 years old, Lucy has won five gold medals for swimming at the Special Olympics," he continued. "She has served as the UNICEF Global Messenger at the Special Olympics World Games, and is the official spokesperson of the Special Olympics UNICEF USA partnership. She raised critical awareness and funding for programs worldwide and has traveled to Mexico, Peru, Brazil, Paraguay, and Jamaica, spreading her gospel of strength, kindness, and humanity everywhere she goes. She has addressed dignitaries at the U.N., and just this year spoke at a state briefing. And Lucy once rallied senators and politicians to support the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. And when she’s not showing well-seasoned humanitarians how it’s done, you can find her scoring goals, swimming laps, and surfing the coast. Now, remember, she’s just 18. What are you doing?”

After rattling off Meyer’s impressive list of accomplishments—and undoubtedly causing the audience to question their own productivity, charitable and otherwise—Gyllenhaal and UNICEF USA CEO & President Caryl M. Stern presented her with the award. “Thank you very much,” said Meyer. “It’s an honor to receive this award and so exciting to have it presented by Jake. He is so cool.” We couldn’t agree more.

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Before the night came to an end, Diana Ross treated guests to renditions of three of her greatest hits: “I’m Coming Out,” “Stop in the Name of Love,” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” Following her powerful performance, Connick Jr. returned to the stage with something equally powerful: a report of the night’s fundraising efforts, which totaled a whopping $3.7 million raised for the cause. Now that’s what we’d call a successful Giving Tuesday.

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