Photos taken at the Extra Special People Big Hearts Pageant on Saturday, Feb. 9, 2019 at the Classic Center in Athens, Georgia. Big Hearts is annual pageant and fundraiser for children and adults of all abilities. (Photo/Christina R. Matacotta, crmatacotta@gmail.com)

Encompassing an auction, a pageant-style show and banquet, Watkinsville-based nonprofit organization Extra Special People will host its annual Big Hearts event on Feb. 15.

The event, organized to highlight the talents of the participants and benefit the nonprofit, is one of ESP’s “Big Three” programs and raised over $150,000 with over 2,000 attendees in 2019, said Katarina Christmann, the coordinator of communications and a University of Georgia alum.

Christmann, who first became involved as ESP’s special events intern her junior year at the University of Georgia, said this will be her seventh year in attendance for the Big Hearts event.

“I think it really means something special to everyone who's involved,” Christmann said. “For our participants, it's a night where they really get to feel like stars ... and just have all the focus and a sold out audience, celebrating them and cheering them on.”

Founded in 1986, ESP is a nonprofit serving around 2,000 individuals with behavior disorders and other developmental disabilities, according to its website. The theme for this year’s event, In Bloom, was also inspired by the organization’s growth and a TED talk given by executive director Laura Whitaker entitled “The Dandelion Shift: Seeing the Ability in Disability,” Christmann said.

At 3:30, the doors will open for the pageant, during which around 60 contestants will show off their talents. Along with the contestant groups, an additional group of 10 to 12 performers put on a show throughout the pageant that follows along with the event’s theme. A banquet will then follow.

The event also draws in notable members from the Athens community and beyond through a panel of rotating emcees. This year, the panel will include former NFL linebacker David Pollack, “The Bachelorette” and “The Bachelor in Paradise” contestant Josh Murray and ESP’s director of programs, Jake Sapp.

“It’s always amazing to see the looks on the participant’s faces when they kind of finished the whole production and they're being crowned on stage,” Christmann said.

Supporters of ESP can also bid on over 900 items ranging from T-shirts from the event to gift cards to local restaurants and signed Georgia memorabilia through a silent mobile auction.

Correction: The Red & Black originally referred to David Pollack, Josh Murray and Jake Sapp as judges. They are emcees. The Red & Black regrets this error. 

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