Wichita Five disabled Kansans and their caregivers are headed to Washington, D.C., for the presidential inauguration, the guests of a millionaire providing free hotel rooms to the needy.
Stacey Leighton said she saw a news story on television about businessman Earl W. Stafford, who paid $1 million to rent 300 rooms and the ballroom of a luxury hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue for the inauguration in order to give the rooms to people who are poor, disabled, homeless or who would otherwise not be able to attend.
Leighton has worked with developmentally disabled people for 20 years, including seven at Envision, a facility for the blind or people with diminished vision. She leads a small group of developmentally disabled people who meet twice a month to discuss and debate current events.
“They’re very knowledgeable, and they certainly know a lot more about the world around them than a lot of people,” Leighton said.
She e-mailed information about them to the businessman’s Stafford Foundation and was surprised when an invitation to the JW Marriott Hotel came back.
“Needless to say, I was pretty overwhelmed,” Leighton said. “I didn’t expect a response at all.”
Among those making the trip is Anita Thornbrugh, 46, who must use a wheelchair because of cerebral palsy. She has voted in every election since she was 18 and attended last year’s Democratic caucus in Wichita despite snow and ice.
Thornbrugh, who’s never traveled outside Kansas, said she’s watched presidential inaugurations on TV but never dreamed she’d attend one. But the opportunity fits with her passion for voting and worldly view.
“We can sit back and we can gripe about the changes, but nothing’s going to happen,” she said. “Something has to be done.
“The way the economy is right now, people need their voices heard.”
Leighton said she was told she could bring up to 16 people but she didn’t believe she could afford to bring everyone and their caregivers, so she limited the list to 10. Group members’ ages range from 19 to 51.
Ted Kresse, a spokesman for the Stafford Foundation, said the group is the only one the foundation invited from Kansas.
Stafford, 60, owned Unitech, which provides multimedia simulation training systems to the military, until selling it to Lockheed Martin late last month. The son of a Baptist minister had the idea last March to help needy people attend the inauguration, regardless of who won, Kresse said.
In October, when Stafford saw that the Marriott was offering a block of rooms for the inauguration, “he said, ‘That’s what God wants me to do,”’ Kresse said, adding that Stafford immediately got a $1 million cashier’s check from the bank, went to the hotel and booked the rooms.
“He’s a very colorful and very faith-driven man,” Kresse said. “He really believes he’s doing God’s work here.”
Leighton has spent the last few weeks raising the $5,000 she’ll need to get the group to Washington. The money will cover the rental of two vans, including one adapted for Thornbrugh, meals and hotel stays along the way and back.
The group leaves Friday, arriving in the nation’s capital next Sunday, and then attending a prayer breakfast and a Martin Luther King Jr. Day luncheon featuring a speech by King’s son, Martin Luther King III.
On Inauguration Day, they will watch the parade from a heated tent atop the hotel and attend their own inaugural ball that night, wearing formal wear provided by D.C.-area department stores.