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ESP creates a ‘masterpiece’ at the 2024 Big Hearts Gala

ESP participant Wynnie showcased her talent of applying makeup by doing her makeup on stage for everyone to watch.

Extra Special People, a Watkinsville-based nonprofit for people with disabilities and their families, hosted its 17th annual Big Hearts Talent Show and Gala on Friday and Saturday nights, raising over $1.2 million while showcasing the many gifts of its particpants.

ESP CEO Laura Hope Whitaker hosted the talent show alongside beatboxer and dancer Rod Smith and model, actress and activist, Lily Moore.

This year’s emcees were former University of Georgia football player, podcaster and ESP National Board Member Aaron Murray; his brother, real estate agent Josh Murray; Peach State Lite Beer founder, Java Joy Co-founder and former ESP Program Director Jake Sapp; and Atlanta Falcons linebacker Lorenzo Carter.

This year’s theme was “Masterpiece,” which Whitaker said came to her while reading Ephesians 2:12, in which God said everyone was created beautifully and perfectly as His workmanship and masterpiece.

“The world can look at outward appearance, and they can look at the culture standards…What ESP is great at is kind of removing all of those standards and celebrating the masterpiece in everybody,” said Whitaker. “Everyone was created as a masterpiece and created for good.”

ESP participant Luke showcased his wrestling skills by beating Josh Murray in a wrestling match on stage at the Talent show. [Photo by Caitlin Farmer]

The talent show was held at Athens Church on Friday night and began with a red carpet before participants performed.

Inside of Athens Church were photo booths and live painting with Italian artist Elliot From.

The talent show first started in 2008 and was held in the North Oconee High School gym with about 200 people, Whitaker said, noting that that inaugural event raised $15,000.

This year’s talent show and gala had over 1,000 attendees and raised around $1.2 million to help fund programs and a family’s yearly cost of $5,000.

“Our participants continue just being their authentic, beautiful selves,” Whitaker said. “I think people really love a night that is unfiltered.”

Aaron said Big Hearts is ESP’s signature event that keeps doors opened year round and brings communities together across Georgia.

The talent show featured dozens of participants with a range of talents from cooking to singing, dancing, wrestling, playing instruments and more. Attendees donated $1 per people’s choice vote in each age group and raised over $57,000.

ESP participant Finnegan won people’s choice in the little miss and mister category. [Photo by Caitlin Farmer]

The Big Hearts Gala, held Saturday night at The Classic Center in Athens, featured a silent auction, dinner, drinks, red carpet as well as videos and speeches from participants, their families and ESP board members.

Smith began beatboxing in the talent show in 2016 and was asked to host this year, which he said nearly made him cry and was one of the greatest things he’s ever been offered. Smith still performed, surprising the audience with hula hoop tricks instead of his usual beatboxing.

Moore said she’s been involved at ESP since she was about 10 years old and was host and emcee for the fourth time.

ESP participant Nick played guitar at Friday night’s Big Hearts Talent Show. [Photo by Caitlin Farmer]

“Now I’m 20, so just like being a part of a community that’s so inclusive, has been just incredible and just amazing to witness,” Moore said. “I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Honestly, ESP is home, it’s family, and it’s a safe place.”

“Everybody’s talented,” Carter added. “Everybody’s blessed with different skills, and this is their time to go out there and show us.”

Aaron and Josh have been involved with ESP for 14 years. The Murray family also hosts a golf tournament each June with all proceeds going to ESP. Aaron said his favorite part of the talent show is to see the shy participants let loose and have fun.

“It’s all about the kids,” Aaron said. “It’s hard not to be around them and just feel the love and the warmth and the joy and the happiness.”

Josh said participants are so genuine and happy, and he hopes he’s helped them as much as they’ve helped him.

“It’s just them living in the moment,” Josh said. “I wish most of us would do that all the time. They teach me lessons every time I see them.”

ESP participant Sam sang and danced to an Elvis Pressley song before throwing his roses to the audience. [Photo by Caitlin Farmer]

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