MSNBC's Norah O'Donnell wafted into the Mandarin Oriental Saturday in a floor-length plum gown to honor the memory of family friend Joan Hisaoka at the Second Annual "Make a Difference" Gala to benefit the Smith Farm Center for Healing and the Arts greeting guests with her husband, restaurant founder Geoff Tracy of Chef Geoff's and Lia's. O'Donnell was the event's headliner.
The Center, which includes the Joan Hisaoka Healing Arts Gallery, blends new and old techniques to transform the experience of illness -- including stress reduction and inner quiet, art-making, supportive listening, and healthy lifestyle choices.
O'Donnell and Tracy said they want to help victims as well as help people avoid cancer in the first place, which was the impetus for their cookbook Baby Love, featuring healthy recipies for infants, to be published by St. Martin's next year. Tracy takes pride in the baby food he's created for their twins, including purées with flax and broccoli. But don't, repeat don't, infer that Chef Geoff's is getting crunchy or exotic. "I don't want to be known as a health-food restaurant," he said. "That would put me straight out of business." (Especially the flax and broccoli, we might add.) "A cup cake is perfectly good," he added. "But have it once in a while."
Honoree Grace Bender, receiving the Hope and Healing Award at the event, is a cancer survivor herself. "We're living in a world when stress, the environment and chemicals in our food are big factors," she said. "It's doing something to our system." She turned her struggle with breast cancer into activism. "I'm a health care advocate," she said emphatically. Bender isn't just talk. She launched MyMedManager.com, a personal health care and medication organizer to help people track tests, manage medications, and coordinate doctors.
Bender was a friend and supporter of the Nina Hyde Breast Cancer Center at Georgetown University when she read an article in Washington Life about Komen Race for the Cure founder Nancy Brinker, another hit by breast cancer. The article motivated her to get an MRI, which led to a double mastectomy that saved her life.
The experience seems to have strengthened, not weakened her. "I'm going to become a blogger," she said. "I'm going to spend the rest of my life teaching people to be advocates for themselves and their loved ones."
The event felt like a family affair. Wendy Gordon, who became president of Hisaoka Communications, came to support the cause. Hisaoka's brother Bob chaired the fundrasier. Old friends were drafted to help out including Joan's old friend Chris Spielmann who works as a noted architectural and commercial photographer during the week. He stepped in as a volunteer to make sure the red carpet shots came out ok. "Of course I said yes," he said. Even though Joan wouldn't have wanted him to do it for free. Eric Ziebold of did the dinner with the help of Robert Weidmaier, RJ Cooper and Jeff Buben.
By HOP contributor Beth Solomon, photo by Chris Spielmann