LIFEDesigns is a grassroots non-profit 501(c)3 organization started by a group of parents who all had children with disabilities back in 1982. At that time, the common thing to do when a child or person had a disability was to send the child to an institution after they had completed as much school as they could. This small group of devoted parents believed in something different. They believed that everyone deserves a home, a job, and access to the community they lived in. Our sole existence is to provide the support and opportunities that people with disabilities need to achieve their goals. We fight segregation, and model integration in everything we do. Our values are reflected in our services, focusing on community employment, networks of natural supports, and affordable accessible homes for everyone. Today LIFEDesigns provides supports to over 250 individuals, employs nearly 300 people, and provides 650 individual services across 7 counties each year.
What is your position at LifeDesigns?
I am the Chief Development Officer, and oversee agency fundraising, grant writing, volunteer managment (sic), marketing, public relations, and events.
Before you worked at LifeDesigns, were you involved in other organizations that help differently abled people?
I was not involved in any agency that worked with people in this way. In fact, I had very little understanding of this field or the specific work that is done in this field before I was introduced to LIFEDesigns.
The Week of Chocolate was developed and why that chocolate theme was chosen?
This year will actually be the 20th anniversary of The Week of Chocolate community festival. I have been with LIFEDesigns for a little over 2 years. That being said, I have picked up on a little bit of the history of the events since being here. Some of the history has been lost with time. This is the story as I've heard it from a variety of people who remember: The person who actually had the idea of creating this series of chocolate events now works at Oliver Winery (one of our event long time supporters). At the time she worked for LIFEDesigns and was tasked with creating an idea for a fundraising event that would be popular, and broadly engage the community. The Week of Chocolate is what she presented to our Board of Directors at the time, and they loved the idea! Originally it was designed to be a series of events leading up to Valentines day, and chocolate seemed like an appropriate theme! It is also broadly appealing to audiences, and loads of fun! The specific events themselves have changed greatly over time. LIFEDesigns for instance has held Chocolate Fest, and the moved to the Art of Chocolate. Chocolate Fest grew to such a large event, it was a great way to gain publicity, but unfortunately took far too much effort to plan and organize for our limited staff resources. The Art of Chocolate now is a much smaller event, but offers a greater experience for the guests who do attend. Other non-profit organizations were invited to host their own events and raise money for their cause through the Week of Chocolate.
Over the years, many agencies have participated: The Monroe County History Center, Mother Hubbard's Cupboard, Monroe County Humane Association, WonderLab Museum, Rhino's Youth Center, and The Bloomington Moose Lodge to name a few. Participating can be difficult for many smaller agencies, due to increased demands on staff members' time, and limited resources. For this reason, in 2014 LIFEDesigns introduced the opportunity to host events to for profit businesses as well as non-profit organizations. The only catch was that the for profit business was requested to partner with a non-profit and donate proceeds of their event to their non-profit partner. This encouraged a greater collaboration between local businesses and non-profits, and we hope in the future will create a stronger community.
The Art of Chocolate has changed over the years, quite substantially. It started out as a small networking event at the Art Museum, with tables presented by local chefs of their finest chocolate creations. Local beverage vendors would present samplings of locally crafted wine and beer. During these years, the event averaged around 150-200 guests. More recently, The Art of Chocolate has expanded to include a live auction and dinner in addition to the chocolate samplings! Earlier this year, The Art of Chocolate for the first time in it's history moved away from the Art Museum. It was certainly a wonderful venue for that event, but it simply did not accommodate that number of guests for dinner or a live auction.
Where will the 2017 Art of Chocolate event be held this year?
Earlier this year, the event sold out at 200 seats, and seeing that we again needed to change venues for a larger space, we've decided to move the event to IMU's Alumni Hall and Solarium. This will also give guests an opportunity to stay at the hotel after the event if they wish. This year we'll be able to hold up to 320 guests, and have a really exciting event planned for our 20th anniversary of The Week of Chocolate! Every year, since I started working at LIFEDesigns and organizing the Week of Chocolate I've received the same question from multiple people "When are you going to bring back the chocolate people?". Well, this year in honor of our 20th anniversary, we are bringing back the chocolate painted people! The evening will begin with hors d'oeuvres, social time, and an online auction in the Solarium. Our theme (in addition to chocolate) this year for the Art of Chocolate will be Mardi Gras. We're very excited to encourage guests to wear their own masks or purchase one at the event to wear. There will be live music, and a New Orleans style throughout the event. For the next stage of the event, guests will move into Alumni Hall for dinner and the live auction. The live auction will feature a fun game of "Heads or Tails", basically a 50/50 raffle in which the winner receives half of whatever the pot is in "auction bucks" to spend in the live auction. Finally, after the dinner, guests will head back to Solarium for the chocolate dessert tasting. We don't want to spoil all of the special surprises and treats offered during the dinner and dessert tasting, but there will be music and dancing during the dessert tasting. Tickets are available for the event now online.
Last year, I know that some of the clients from LifeDesigns made some of the chocolates that were part of Art of Chocolate. Will that be the case this year and if so, may we have know what they are planning to make?
As mentioned earlier, our values and beliefs are reflected in everything we do...including our fundraising events. We would love for one or more of our customers to do that again, but none have shown interest for this year. At this stage in the planning process, it's unlikely that we'll be able to coordinate something like that this year. We would love to do it again if someone expresses interest in future years. Instead we plan to invite several customers to attend the event and enjoy themselves.
Had you participated in any of The Week of Chocolate events before you joined LifeDesigns?
I had not. In fact, honestly I had never even heard of The Week of Chocolate before. It is worth noting though, that I really wasn't involved in the Bloomington community in anyway before I came to LIFEDesigns. My husband and our family only had just moved to Bloomington in the year or two before I started with LIFEDesigns, and with 2 young children, we just didn't get out much!
I'm absolutely a fan of chocolate. It may sound a little strange, but my favorite chocolate is actually a white chocolate. Peacetree Mountain Truffles (located in the Olive Leaf store front in Bloomington) actually makes some delicious wine truffles out of a white chocolate that is just my favorite! Here at LIFEDesigns, we have truly embraced chocolate! In fact, when we send out gifts to our supporters, we typically send...you guessed it...Chocolate!
Just one last thought. This event (The Art of Chocolate) is so unique, and so great because we all have so much fun planning it every year. We have a committee of around 15 people who are absolutely engaged both in LIFEDesigns' mission, and planning an event with so much Chocolate! We can't say or do enough to thank our amazing volunteer committee members and board members who help to make this event as fun and exciting as it it. We also can't thank our sponsors enough! The Bloomington Moose Lodge has done so much to make these events possible over the years. Also, Oliver Winery, Fine Print, Lamar, and more recently The Vault at Gallery Mortgage and the Bloomington Watercolor Society.
Though I've not personally been to every Week of Chocolate events, the feedback that I'm hearing is the same from the other event hosts. They absolutely LOVE planning their events. For many of them, it's the most fun they have all year! We actually had 3 non-profit organizations this year who REALLY wanted to host an event, but simply didn't have the capacity or resources to do it. We're working with them and hoping they are able to find businesses to partner with so they are able to host their events either in 2018 or beyond.
Thank you, Stephanie, for telling our readers about this community charity series of events.
Thank you so much for the opportunity of this interview!
Sisters and Brothers, I know that many of you are not in the Bloomington, Indiana, area but for those who are, have you ever been to any of the Week of Chocolate events? Leave a comment and let us know.
If you our community has a similar event, please mention that in a comment, too; just no links please.